ISLAMABAD - Pakistani officials voiced fears Wednesday that a U.S.-led offensive in southern Afghanistan could force Taliban fighters into this nation's restive southwest, but said they had not asked the Americans to stop or slow the operation.

The concerns surfaced during a visit to Pakistan by special U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, who assured Islamabad of Washington's desire to co-ordinate on anti-militant operations, even as he noted that the Taliban still move freely across the Pakistan-Afghan border.

"We want to be sure that we share with your government and your military, military plans so you can be prepared and co-ordinate because a lot of different things can happen here," Holbrooke told reporters after meeting with Pakistan's prime minister.

The U.S. is keen on ensuring Pakistan's co-operation in its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. For years, attempts to crack down on militants in Afghanistan have been undermined by their ability to find safe havens across the lengthy, rugged and porous border in Pakistan.

Pakistan's role is especially critical now that the U.S. has sent thousands more troops to Afghanistan to take on a resurgent Taliban.

Early this month, some 4,000 U.S. Marines launched an operation against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, which borders Pakistan's Baluchistan province. The offensive comes ahead of next month's Afghan presidential elections.

A senior Pakistani intelligence official said Islamabad has "reservations" about the Helmand offensive because militants crossing the border could further destabilize Baluchistan, long the scene of a low-level insurgency by nationalist groups seeking more autonomy.

NATO's spokesman in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, said so far there was no sign that significant numbers of Taliban fighters were fleeing into Pakistan from Helmand and most were heading for safe havens "that are yet to be cleared" by NATO and Afghan forces.

Pakistani officials agreed but said they had sent more troops to the 160 mile-(260 kilometre-) long stretch of border from other parts of the northwest.

If a significant influx does occur, Pakistan may be forced to move troops from its border with India, the intelligence official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. He stressed that Islamabad cannot make that shift "beyond a certain point."

Despite American efforts to change the perception, Pakistani authorities still view India as their greatest threat because the two nuclear-armed nations have fought three wars over the past six decades.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said Holbrooke was informed of the concerns. "We discussed with him about how to minimize the negative impact of the troop surge in Afghanistan on Pakistan's border area," Basit said.

Despite Pakistan's unease, a government security official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said Islamabad has not asked the U.S. to stop or slow down the Helmand offensive. The operation is considered a key test of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and the U.S. would likely have rejected any such request.

Pakistani officials have raised the issue of a militant influx with U.S. officials in the past several months.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told a Senate committee in late May that he was worried about it, but that he was comfortable knowing the military was planning for it and working to address any such problem if it arises.

Pakistani troops are winding down an offensive in the Swat Valley in the country's northwest, and have been carrying out strikes in nearby South Waziristan, part of Pakistan's lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border.

The military expects to soon go full-scale in South Waziristan in an operation to eliminate Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who has been blamed for scores of suicide attacks. Islamabad considers him the country's greatest internal threat.


Associated Press writer Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Pauline Jelinek in Washington and correspondent Sagar Meghani in Washington contributed to this report.

Latest From ...