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At Least 25 Civilians Die in Pakistani Offensive

The battle continues against fighters believed to be linked to Al Qaeda. A rocket attack on a house kills 12 women and children.

March 21, 2004|Zulfiqar Ali | Special to The Times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Civilian casualties mounted Saturday as fierce fighting between Pakistan's military and hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda militants approached its sixth day in the tribal region of South Waziristan on the Afghan border.

Witnesses said a rocket fired from a Pakistani helicopter killed at least 12 women and children in South Waziristan.

And a senior Pakistani commander confirmed that a U.S. helicopter had strayed across the Afghan border and launched an attack Friday night just inside Pakistani territory in North Waziristan. Residents said three civilians were wounded.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's military said Saturday that it had detained more than 100 suspected militants in the area, among them 18 Arabs, Chechens and other foreigners.

U.S. and Pakistani officials said last week that the heavy resistance by the suspected Al Qaeda militants suggested that they were protecting Ayman Zawahiri, the terrorist network's organizational leader and the top deputy to Osama bin Laden. However, there was still no hard evidence Saturday that Zawahiri was in the area.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people marched in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's volatile Northwest Frontier Province, to protest the civilian casualties and the U.S. incursion. The demonstrators chanted "Get out, FBI" and "Stop the war in the tribal areas in the name of Al Qaeda."

Foreign reporters usually are barred from Pakistan's semiautonomous Pushtun tribal areas. But on Saturday, the military brought a group of foreign reporters to Wana, South Waziristan's administrative headquarters, and showed 40 bound and blindfolded prisoners in the back of an army truck.

Witnesses said security forces were searching house to house in the eastern and western areas of the battle zone as they tried to close in on what some officials continued to suspect was a senior Al Qaeda leader.

As many as 500 militants are believed to be fighting from heavily fortified compounds in South Waziristan, using mortars, AK-47's, rockets and hand grenades, Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, the Pakistani army commander in charge of the offensive, told reporters in Wana.

"These people have been here for a long, long time. They are extremely professional fighters," Hussain said. "They have tremendous patience before they open fire."

Before the military offensive began Tuesday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said he would resign before allowing U.S. military forces to operate in Pakistan. But he confirmed at a meeting of tribal leaders that more than two dozen U.S. agents were working in the border region and sharing intelligence with the Pakistan government.

Retired army Brig. Mahmood Shah, who is in charge of security in northwest Pakistan's tribal regions, said U.S. officials were informed of Friday night's helicopter attack inside Pakistan and replied that it was the result of a navigational error.

Calling it a misunderstanding, Shah said Afghan security forces on the other side of the border might have given U.S. forces the wrong information.

The U.S. helicopter intruded almost two miles into Pakistani territory and fired rockets at a pickup truck in the Alawari Mandi area of North Waziristan, witnesses said, wounding Pushtun tribesmen in the vehicle. They also said that U.S. helicopters hovered over Pakistani territory for several hours.

At least 25 civilians have been killed since Friday night, as government forces battled the determined and heavily armed militants, who are said to be well dug-in in walled compounds of mud brick.

A witness said security forces had brought the bodies of three militants to brigade headquarters in Wana. He said that 12 soldiers' bodies had been recovered from the battlefield.

Residents of Wana said seven children and five women were killed Saturday when a Pakistani army helicopter gunship fired rockets at a residential compound. They said the attack by the helicopter, a U.S.-made Cobra, occurred in the village of Ghwakha, near Azam Warsak, which is one of the main targets of the offensive by more than 7,000 Pakistan paramilitary troops and soldiers. Officials in Peshawar said the helicopter fired rockets at a house after gunfire erupted from the compound.

Among other attacks, tribesman Dilawar Khan said by telephone from Wana that Pakistani helicopters fired on a pickup truck, killing one person. Another was seriously wounded, he said.

Pakistani army helicopters also fired on three houses in Azam Warsak, killing three people, witnesses said.

Two Afghans were treated for wounds in a Wana hospital after a house in the village of Karikot came under rocket fire.

Pakistani authorities gave women and children three hours to flee the area before launching their assault Thursday morning, after militants inflicted heavy losses on outgunned government forces. Hundreds of civilians abandoned their homes and sought refuge from the fighting in Wana.


Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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