Al-Qaida fighters might have escaped via tunnels

Pakistani blockade forces find network leading toward Afghan border

March 23, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistani soldiers have found a network of tunnels that could have allowed al-Qaida fighters to escape a week-old siege of villages in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan, Pakistani officials said yesterday.

One tunnel, a mile long, linked the homes of two tribal elders - Nek Mohammed and Sharif Khan - who have been leading supporters suspected of harboring al-Qaida fugitives in the tribal area of South Waziristan.

Another linked the fortified mud compounds in the battle zone with a dry riverbed near the Afghan border, according to Brig. Mehmood Shah, security chief for the tribal region.

The two local tribal leaders in whose homes the tunnels were found are missing. Officials said they don't know whether the tribesmen escaped their cordon or are hiding in the area.

The tunnels were within the 20-square-mile cordon established by Pakistani soldiers after fighting erupted last week, and it is unlikely any fighters were able to escape after that cordon went up, said army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.

But it is possible that al-Qaida fighters used the tunnels during the first chaotic day of fighting, March 16, Shah said.

"There is a possibility that some might have escaped," Shah said in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier province.

At least 15 local Pakistani paramilitaries were killed and 12 more were taken captive when an operation to detain rebel tribesmen ran into unexpectedly fierce resistance, triggering a battle between Pakistani forces and an estimated 400 to 500 militants and local tribesmen.

The intensity of the resistance prompted speculation that whoever was inside the fortified compounds must be protecting a senior al-Qaida official, possibly Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf told CNN last week that he suspected a "high-value target" was there when the battle started.

But Pakistani officials now say there is no evidence that al-Zawahiri was in the area at the time. They believe it is more likely that the foreign militants assumed to be fighting alongside the local tribesmen are Central Asians belonging to the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a radical Islamic group that fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Six corpses of unidentified men killed in the fighting were brought to Rawalpindi, Pakistan, for DNA testing that could help determine whether any were known al-Qaida members, government officials said.

"They don't look like Pakistanis. They are certainly foreigners. The guess is that they are Chechens or Uzbeks," said a senior government official.

The tunnels were found during a temporary cease-fire called to allow a jirga, or council, of local tribal elders to enter the cordoned-off area to negotiate with the rebel tribesmen.

In Wana yesterday, the 18-member tribal peace delegation crossed through the military cordon for talks with elders of the Yargul Khel tribe, believed to be fighting alongside the al-Qaida militants.

The delegation carried a white flag and brought with it three government demands for the fighters: Free 12 soldiers and two government officials taken captive last week; hand over tribesmen involved in the fighting; and kick out any foreigners or show the military where to track them down.

Shah said that "in light of the past experience we are not very hopeful" the delegation would succeed.

Sultan, the army spokesman, said the tribesmen had until the end of today to turn over suspected terrorists and their supporters.

Gen. John Abizaid, the leader of the U.S. Central Command, which coordinates forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, made an unannounced visit to Pakistan yesterday to meet with senior government officials, Sultan said. He described the trip as "routine" and said it had been planned before the current fighting broke out.

Pakistan is eager to end the standoff, which threatens to widen into a broader war across the tribal frontier.

Although the battle zone was quiet yesterday, at least eight Pakistani soldiers traveling in a convoy were killed in an ambush 20 miles to the east. The soldiers were heading into the tribal area to supply the soldiers battling the militants and rebel tribesmen holed up inside the fortified mud compounds.

Early today, officials said the ambush killed at least 12 soldiers and injured 15. At least six army trucks were hit with rockets near Sarwakai, the officials said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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