ISLAMABAD, April 9: Interior Minister Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat has said that a fresh operation would be launched in the South Waziristan area if tribal elders and area maliks fail to hand over suspected militants to the government before the April 20 deadline.

Speaking at a meet-the-press programme here on Friday, the minister said that Chechen, Uzbek and Arab nationals hiding in South Waziristan were involved in most of the terrorist activities in Pakistan, including the two attempts on the life of the president in Rawalpindi.

Responding to a question about Defence Minister Rao Sikandar Iqbal's statement on the president's uniform, he said: "I think, if President Musharraf sheds his military uniform it would lead to instability in the country."

He said he would request the president to reconsider his decision of quitting the post of Army Chief. In reply to a question about reports that Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden had managed to escape from the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the minister said: "These are mere speculations as nobody exactly knows where he is?"

Responding to a question about the possibility of former chief minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif returning to the country, Mr Hayat said that Shahbaz Sharif would not take the risk of coming back. "If he came, he would be dealt with according to the law of the land," he added.

He claimed that 95 per cent of the recent incidents of terrorism in the country had their roots in the 'no-go areas' in South Waziristan. He said local and foreign terrorists involved in the attacks on President Pervez Musharraf had been arrested from Wana.

"We have made inroads into their network and apprehended culprits involved in the attacks on the president. Their involvement is beyond any doubt." The minister pointed out that arms seized during the operation in Wana included state-of-the-art jamming devices, timers for explosives, rocket-launchers and missiles.

"It is true that keeping weapons is a tradition in the tribal areas, but what is the motive behind the piling up of state-of-the- art devices?" he asked. The interior minister said about 160 people, half of them foreigners, had been apprehended during the operation in Wana.

Mr Hayat said the recent operation in Wana was against foreign terrorists and not against local people. "The government had talked to the local administration, local political leaders and their jirga before conducting the operation," he added.

He said the government had dispelled the impression that Pakistan had been soft on terrorists and sectarian killers. "We have dispelled that impression effectively, and Pakistan has played a vital role in making the world a safer place to live in. Now Pakistan is regarded and respected as a responsible member of the international community."

Commenting on the law and order situation in the country, the minister said that law-enforcement agencies had acted successfully against culprits involved in the recent acts of sectarian violence and terrorism and apprehended 90 per cent of them.

"Our law-enforcement agencies have done well despite their limited resources," he said. interior minister said the element of terrorism had been obvious in sectarian killings in Quetta since June 2003.

The government, he said, had been successful in curbing sectarian violence that were now confined to a few places. He claimed that the government had arrested 16 people involved in the recent acts of terrorism in Karachi.

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