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Pakistan Calls a Cease-Fire, Seeks Negotiations

Officials hope tribal leaders can persuade suspected Al Qaeda fighters to surrender.

March 22, 2004|Zulfiqar Ali | Special to The Times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistani forces hunting hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda fighters near the Afghan border called a temporary cease-fire Sunday as the government gave tribal leaders a chance to persuade the militants to surrender.

Officials said the government granted 25 tribal elders safe passage into the battle zone in an effort to negotiate a peace deal with local tribesman sheltering the militants.

In calling the cease-fire, the government also demanded that local tribesmen unconditionally release 16 Pakistani troops and officials they have detained, hand over all wanted suspects and provide assurances that they will not shelter any suspects in the future.

U.S. and Pakistani officials said last week that the intense resistance suggested that the suspected militants were protecting a "high-value" target, possibly Ayman Zawahiri, the top deputy of Osama bin Laden in the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

But Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, told CNN on Sunday, "Who the particular high-value target might be, one or more, we don't have any clue."

The fighting has raged near the town of Wana, in the South Waziristan region, since Tuesday. Senior officials here said the government ordered the military to stop firing artillery Sunday after the militants' resistance dropped sharply.

"The troops have silenced their artillery guns, and helicopter gunships were hovering over the designated zone but did not fire rockets," retired army Brig. Mahmood Shah, who is responsible for security in the semiautonomous tribal belt of northwest Pakistan, told reporters in Peshawar on Sunday.

But both sides continued to fire lighter weapons during intermittent clashes in several villages in an area cordoned off by several thousand Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary troops, witnesses said by telephone.

Pakistani soldiers killed two Chechen fighters as they tried to break through the ring, Shah said. He did not provide exact casualty figures, but several dozen civilians, government troops and militants have been reported killed in the last week.

Government forces continued house-to-house searches and had cleared 152 houses by Sunday. Officials said the search operation might take a month and that security forces had demolished houses used to shelter suspected militants.

Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, who is leading the offensive in the tribal areas as commander of the Pakistani army's 11th Corps, told a local TV channel that his forces would "teach a lesson" to the Yargulkhel tribe, which is accused of harboring foreign militants.

Officials said 100 militants, among them at least 18 foreigners including Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs, had been arrested in the six days of clashes.

The government believes that about 500 militants are holed up in the South Waziristan villages of Azam Warsak, Shin Warsak and Kaloosha.

But Wana residents contacted by phone disputed the claim that hundreds of militants were hiding in the cordoned-off zone and denied that several foreigners had been captured in the operation. "If there are any hardened militants, they are out of the reach of the Pakistan military forces," a resident of Karikot said, speaking anonymously.

Mounting civilian casualties in the offensive are fueling opposition to President Pervez Musharraf. On Sunday, Naseerullah Khan Babar, a former interior minister and retired general, accused Musharraf of staging a phony offensive to strengthen his grip on power and remain in Washington's good graces.

Babar, a strong critic of the government's Afghanistan policy, said in a statement issued Sunday that history would not forgive Musharraf for what Babar called atrocities and cruelties against innocent tribesmen.

Meanwhile, leaders of the powerful Islamist party Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam said foreign fighters in the border region were former mujahedin who battled the Soviet troops that occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The party, a staunch ally of Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime, held a protest in Peshawar to demand that the government create camps to keep the foreign fighters contained without more bloodshed.

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