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Pakistani Army Convoy Hit; Secret Tunnel Found

March 23, 2004|Zulfiqar Ali | Special to The Times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Amid suspicions that some militants along the Afghan border had escaped a Pakistani military cordon through a secret tunnel, hit-and-run attackers in a nearby area ambushed an army convoy Monday.

Assailants firing rocket-propelled grenades damaged six military vehicles, including an oil tanker, along a highway near the town of Wana, according to witnesses interviewed by telephone. It was unclear whether Pakistani forces suffered casualties, the witnesses added, but some suggested at least 12 soldiers died in the afternoon ambush.

The attack is likely to test the patience of the Pakistani army, which announced Sunday it would hold fire to give tribal elders another chance to talk as many as 500 suspected militants in the region into surrendering. A senior commander said Monday that the lull in the fighting was not a formal cease-fire and that the offensive could resume at any time.

Fierce fighting erupted last Tuesday near Wana as security forces searched for suspected Al Qaeda fighters believed to be hiding in the semiautonomous South Waziristan region near the Afghan border.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said Thursday that the militants' fierce resistance indicated they might be defending a "high-value target," such as senior Al Qaeda leaders. But Pakistani officials have since backed away from suggestions that Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, was among the militants surrounded by a military cordon.

Retired army Brig. Mahmood Shah, chief of security for northwest Pakistan's tribal region, said Monday that security forces had discovered a tunnel more than a mile long in the cordoned-off zone. It connected the mud-brick houses of the two most wanted tribesmen, Mohammed Sharif and Maulvi Nek Mohammed, Shah told reporters in Peshawar.

"There is a possibility that the tunnel may have been used before the [cordon] operation," he said, adding that the tunnels begin at the homes in the village of Kaloosha and continue toward a mountain range that straddles the Afghan border.

Pakistani military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan confirmed Monday's attack against the army convoy, though he said only two or three vehicles had been destroyed. The number of casualties was being checked, he said, adding it was still unclear who was responsible for the attack.

The ambush took place about 25 miles northeast of Wana, where security forces were preparing to demolish shops belonging to members of the Yargulkhel tribe as collective punishment for allegedly harboring Al Qaeda militants. The local government warned Monday that about 500 small businesses were marked for demolition once the owners removed their goods. About 400 homes also will be destroyed, officials said.

Under the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulation, a law imposed by the subcontinent's former British colonial rulers, the government can demolish property to punish a tribe that disobeys state orders.

A delegation of 22 Pushtun tribal elders passed through a military cordon Monday to deliver the national government's demands to members of the Yargulkhel tribe. The government wants fighters to set free 16 soldiers and officials taken captive last week, surrender tribesmen involved in the fighting, and expel foreign fighters or show the military where to find them.

Malik Beha Khan, one of the delegates, said in a phone interview that Yargulkhel elders near the village of Azam Warsak denied that any foreign militants were in the area under their jurisdiction.

He said shelling by the security forces may have killed as many as 40 civilians, including children. Wana residents contacted by phone said the situation was worsening by the day, forcing many to flee. About 400 families are living in the open without sufficient food or clean drinking water, they said.

Shah, the security chief, told reporters that the bodies of six suspected foreign terrorists were sent to the city of Rawalpindi for DNA tests. He said that 123 suspects had been arrested in the weeklong offensive and the houses of 13 tribesmen accused of harboring terrorists had been demolished.

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