Fighting intensifies in hunt for trapped al-Qaida aide

Pakistani troops encircle 400 tribesmen, militants

March 20, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Thousands of Pakistani soldiers backed by helicopter gunships and artillery bombarded villages near the Afghan border yesterday as they closed in on a group of heavily armed fighters thought to include at least one senior al-Qaida leader.

The spokesman for Pakistan's military, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, said Pakistani forces have surrounded as many as 400 local tribesmen and suspected foreign militants holed up in several fortified mud compounds in South Waziristan.

Sultan could not confirm speculation that Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was among the besieged fighters, but he said at a news briefing: "From the type of resistance that we are facing, we suspect the presence of some high-value target. The militants appear to be well dug-in in mud fortresses. They appear to be determined to fight to the end."

His comments echoed remarks Thursday by Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who told CNN he suspected a "high-value target" had been surrounded in the area, triggering the flurry of speculation about al-Zawahiri.

As bin Laden's closest aide for the past two decades, al-Zawahiri is considered the network's operational leader, and officials say his capture would be almost as significant as bin Laden's.

With no end in sight to what could turn into a protracted siege, Pakistan sent reinforcements into the area, bringing the number of troops and paramilitaries surrounding the fighters to more than 7,000.

They are being assisted by a team of "about a dozen" U.S. intelligence agents, although no American soldiers are operating on the Pakistani side, Sultan said. U.S. forces are only 12 miles away, just across the border in Afghanistan.

"There are no American troops involved. There are a few Americans present," he said. "They are ... assisting Pakistan in intelligence, basically in technical intelligence, in surveillance, in satellite imaging."

The question of U.S. involvement in the fighting is sensitive because the autonomous and religiously conservative tribal region, which has historically been off-limits even to Pakistani government officials, is fiercely opposed to the presence of any outsiders, especially Americans.

The fighting is focused in a 20-square-mile area of several small villages dotted with the traditional mud-walled compounds of the local Pashtun tribesmen. The compounds typically are heavily fortified to guard against rival tribesmen.

Hostilities erupted Tuesday when Pakistani forces moved into the Azam Warsak district, near the town of Wana, to secure the surrender of several local tribal leaders suspected of harboring al-Qaida fugitives.

It appears the Pakistani troops were caught off-guard by the resistance, turning what could have been a routine sweep-and-search operation into the biggest battle yet of the anti-terror struggle on Pakistani soil.

"They had actually underestimated the resistance they would face," Sultan said. "They actually barged into a hardened terrorists' den."

Yesterday, some of the besieged fighters tried to break through the army's cordon, triggering some of the fiercest fighting of the 4-day-old encounter.

Five foreigners were among eight people captured yesterday and two foreign militants were killed, officials said. There were unconfirmed reports from the area that at least 15 Pakistani soldiers have been killed, but the military denied suffering heavy losses.

So far, there is no evidence that there are any wanted al-Qaida members among the 24 militants the military says have been killed since Tuesday.

But Sultan told Pakistan's state television there was no question that foreign fighters were among those battling Pakistani troops. "Nobody should have any doubt about the presence of foreigners," he said. "The foreigners present there possess weapons and carry out subversive activities, not only inside Pakistan but ... outside the country as well."

Pakistani forces moved in strength into the tribal area in January and have conducted several operations aimed at rounding up tribesmen suspected of helping al-Qaida.

U.S. forces deployed just across the border in Afghanistan have also been stepping up their efforts to hunt down militants who have been able to evade capture by crisscrossing the mountainous and thinly patrolled border.

South Waziristan has been known as an area in which al-Qaida fugitives had taken refuge for the past two years, since U.S. forces routed the remnants of the Taliban army and its al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan.

There have been several reports since then that bin Laden might be in the area. Although Pakistani officials have speculated that al-Zawahiri is surrounded, there has been no suggestion that bin Laden is there.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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