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Pakistan Steps Up Siege of Rebel Fighters

Reinforcements join troops cordoning off the area and searching villages. Al Qaeda's second-in-command may be with guerrillas.

March 20, 2004|Zulfiqar Ali and Paul Watson | Special to The Times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda fighters continued to be pounded by withering fire from helicopter gunships and artillery Friday as Pakistan's military vowed to crush militants who may have been defending Osama bin Laden's top deputy.

Several thousand reinforcements poured into the tribal region of South Waziristan on the Afghan border to back up about 7,000 Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary forces locked in combat with the militants since Tuesday.

Security forces began house-to-house searches Friday on the outskirts of Azam Warsak and other villages near Wana, the administrative center of South Waziristan, senior officials said. They called the search operation slow and tricky as militants continued to put up heavy resistance.

"The mission is to get these people dead or alive," Pakistani military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told reporters in Islamabad.

President Pervez Musharraf had said in a televised interview Thursday that the fierce resistance suggested that the militants might be protecting a "high-value target" such as one of Al Qaeda's top leaders.

He did not name anyone, but Pakistani and U.S. officials later said intelligence suggested that Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's organizational leader and Bin Laden's top aide, may have been trapped within the cordon Pakistani forces had put around several villages in the remote northwest frontier.

"We still believe that one important figure is present in the Shin Warsak area," a senior Pakistani official said.

A U.S. intelligence official said "indicators" pointed to the possibility that Zawahiri was among the holed-up fighters, but he declined to provide details and said some government intelligence analysts remained skeptical.

"There's certainly a major firefight going on, and it could go on for days," the intelligence official said. "Exactly who's inside that ring is unclear. Some of the people in there are clearly not tribal militias. Some of the dead they've pulled out are believed to be Chechens, some of the people are Arabs."

He noted that the targeted area is so large -- 20 square miles -- that it would be difficult to seal it off completely.

A Pentagon official who is familiar with the intelligence briefings provided to Defense Department leaders said the reports that Zawahiri was trapped appeared to be highly speculative. "I haven't seen anything that would give me ... high confidence in having a particular high-value target in there," the official said.

U.S. officials continued to say that Americans were not involved in the fighting or present at the scene. But they said the United States was providing intelligence support with surveillance aircraft, satellite photography, Predator drones and other equipment.

An estimated 300 to 400 militants -- armed with mortars and machine guns and well dug into fortress-like buildings of mud brick -- continued to put up fierce resistance as Pakistani reinforcements intensified the attack, Sultan said.

Witnesses and officials said security forces were pounding the militants' positions from U.S.-made Cobra helicopter gunships and with mortar bombs and rockets.

At least two Pakistani air force fighters were flying missions over the battle zone, which included the villages of Za Ghundai, Kaloosha and Shin Warsak.

What began Tuesday as a limited mission to search suspected militant hide-outs exploded into intense fighting in a tribal area that has long been largely off-limits to central authority.

Several thousand troops in about 300 trucks and buses moved from Wana to the battle zone Friday, resident Dilawar Khan said by phone from the town.

Quoting local officials, Khan said security forces had encircled about 40 militants in the volatile village of Shin Warsak, where Zawahiri was believed to be cornered.

But "there is no concrete evidence of the presence of [Zawahiri] or any other top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden," he added. "This is just speculation."

Sultan, the military spokesman, did not identify Zawahiri as a target of the operation but told reporters, "From the cordon put around this place, we are quite certain that nobody could have escaped."

The number of militant casualties is not known, but at least 15 Pakistani soldiers have died, the military said.

At least one civilian was killed and a child and seven women were wounded in Thursday's battles, officials said.

A rocket fired from a helicopter hit a school building in Wana and damaged four classrooms, a resident said. No casualties were reported.

Residents in Wana reported a brief pause in the fighting, apparently for Friday prayers. Tribal elders unsuccessfully attempted to mediate with local authorities to set a cease-fire.

The governor of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, Sayed Iftikhar Hussain Shah, also met with tribal elders in Peshawar on Friday and reiterated the government's promise that foreign militants who surrendered peacefully would not be handed over to any other country.

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