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Military Forces Using Pakistani Bases for Campaign, Sources Say

By Tyler Marshall and Rone Tempest
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

For the first time since military operations against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime began, U.S. forces are using at least two bases inside Pakistan, senior Pakistani intelligence and military sources said early Thursday.

According to these sources, U.S. helicopters and other supporting aircraft have arrived at a Pakistani military base at Jacobabad in central Sind province and at a little-used airstrip at Pishin, northeast of Quetta only a few miles from the Afghan border.

A Pakistani military official who declined to be identified said the U.S. military presence is currently limited to the aircraft and their supporting crews and that no combat troops are present.

“They seem to be preparing for low-flying operations, perhaps for reconnaissance purposes,” the source said. The airstrip at Pishin is only a few minutes’ flying time from Afghanistan and only about 20 minutes by helicopter from the Taliban’s spiritual capital, Kandahar.

Tensions still exist between the Pakistan and the Northern Alliance. Pakistan has been vocally opposed to allowing the alliance to retake the capital.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf has said the Northern Alliance must not be allowed to get any mileage out of the U.S. military campaign. Other Pakistani officials have warned that a Northern Alliance triumph in Kabul would turn into a blood bath.

Earlier this week, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said his country’s participation in the coalition efforts would be limited to allowing use of its airspace, sharing intelligence and providing logistical support.

“At the moment,” Musharraf said Monday after the first round of air attacks began, “whatever is going on is not from Pakistan.” But the Pakistan president left the door open for possible further involvement.

The arrival of U.S. military personnel on Pakistani soil is likely to add fuel to religious extremists inside the country who oppose the allied military operations. Since the airstrikes began Sunday, anti-American protesters have staged demonstrations across Pakistan, with the largest and most violent in the borderlands neighboring Afghanistan.

The airstrip in Pishin is in an area with large concentrations of Afghan refugees who strongly support the Taliban regime.

In Thursday’s editions, the Karachi-based newspaper Dawn reported that Pakistani military authorities had taken control of four airports in Sindh, Baluchistan and Punjab provinces and suspended commercial flights at them.

Dawn reported that the other bases involved are in Pansi and Gwadar near a large Pakistani naval base, Panjur, 100 miles northeast of Gwadar, and Dera Ghazi Khan, about 100 miles east of Quetta and about 80 miles from the Afghan border.

In a telephone interview, Dawn reporter Shamim Shansi said about 2,000 Pakistan army troops had sealed off the commercial airport at Jacobabad.

U.S. officials have repeatedly suggested that the next phase of military operations in Afghanistan could include the dropping of small Special Forces units to hunt Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

Pakistan military authorities declined to confirm any of the deployments officially.