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Afghan forces hunt militant leader in north

Thu Sep 4, 2014

KABULAfghan security forces are hunting a senior Islamist militant allowed to settle in the country in 2011 under a government peace plan but who is now leading hundreds of insurgents seeking to overrun the northern province of Kunduz, officials said. The search for Qari Bilal, who is from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) comes months before most foreign troops are due to leave the country.Afghan soldiers and police have been engaged in weeks of sometimes heavy fighting against militants led in part by Bilal, according to officials in Kunduz.

Provincial governor Ghulam Sakhi Baghlani said on Tuesday that at least three districts out of a total of seven were still under the control of Bilal and Mullah Abdul Salam, another militant leader he identified as the Taliban's "shadow governor" of the province.

According to a police spokesman, Bilal fled to Pakistan after 2001 and entered Kunduz through a government peace body, established by presidential decree in 2005, some 10 years later. He said Bilal subsequently returned to the insurgency, and was arrested and released twice by Afghan authorities. But documents viewed by Reuters at the Attorney General's office in Kunduz, however, indicated that Bilal was arrested only once and served his prison term of 18 months before being set free.

Haji Khan Mohammad, who was head of the National Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission in Kunduz in 2011, defended the group's attempts to resettle Bilal in the province.

"If he has now turned into an insurgent, that is not our problem," Mohammad told Reuters, adding Bilal's defection to the insurgency was partly the result of poor treatment at the hands of the justice system. In a raid last week of Bilal's house in Kunduz, security forces found a letter from the commission ordering provincial officials to provide security for Bilal, according to police chief spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini. But after being resettled, Bilal helped plan several attacks in the province, including suicide attacks and the planting of roadside bombs, Hussaini said.