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Pakistan army closes in on alqaeda

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Pakistan Army Pounds Militants, Makes Advances
Fri Mar 19, 2004 07:10 AM ET

By Hafiz Wazir
WANA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani troops near the Afghan border pounded a besieged group of militants, possibly including Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, on Friday and were advancing despite fierce resistance, officials said.

Pakistani soldiers have faced tough opposition from suspected al Qaeda militants and Pakistani tribesmen in the South Waziristan area since launching a sweep on Tuesday, leading to speculation they may be protecting Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's right-hand man.

Fifteen Pakistani soldiers had been killed in the fighting since Thursday but, despite the losses, they were closing in on the militants' positions, said a government official based in the border region.

"At least 15 soldiers have been killed since yesterday," said the official, who declined to be identified.

"There's ferocious resistance but a house-to-house search has started on the outskirts of Shin Warsak," he said.

The fighting, involving several thousand government troops against several hundred militants, is centered on an area to the west of the town of Wana that includes the village of Shin Warsak.

Helicopters clattered in the sky over the battle while the boom of explosions and stutter of small arms echoed across the countryside, residents of Wana said.

Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor, is regarded as the brains of al Qaeda and believed to be one of the key figures behind the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The capture of one of the world's most wanted men would be a major coup for the United States, under fire over its rationale for the war in Iraq as the first anniversary of the March 20 start of that conflict approaches.

It would also be a boost to George W. Bush ahead of this year's presidential election, in which security is a major theme. It would strengthen his campaign to keep allies on side in the war on terror after last week's bloody Madrid train bombings.

"We are closing in on them. Their defense seems to be dying down," one senior security official, Brigadier Mehmood Shah, told Reuters.

"Either they've run out of ammunition or they want to surprise us when we get closer," he said.

Sixteen soldiers and 24 suspected militants, including some foreigners, died in the fighting on Tuesday. There was no word on casualties among the militants on Friday.

Shah denied that 15 more Pakistani soldiers had been killed, saying the government side had suffered no losses since Tuesday.

Zawahri might have been with a group of rebels who fled at the beginning of the offensive on Tuesday and were believed to have taken refuge in Shin Warsak, another official said.

The militants' armored vehicle had come under fire and there was speculation some of those inside, perhaps Zawahri, might have been wounded, the official said.

Afghanistan sent hundreds of extra troops to its border with Pakistan, opposite the area of the battle, to stop militants crossing over to escape the onslaught, officials said.


Western intelligence sources say Zawahri and bin Laden were believed to be close to each other, somewhere in Pakistan's Waziristan. One Pakistani official said bin Laden was not among the cornered militants but did not explain how he knew that.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf told CNN on Thursday the ferocity of the resistance his forces had encountered led generals to believe they were shielding an important militant.

"(Judging by) the resistance that is being offered by the people there, we feel that there may be a high-value target," he said.

Hopes of catching a senior al Qaeda leader have come to nought several times in the past, but given the ferocity of the present battle, analysts say at the very least some senior militants could be among the defenders.

No Pakistani officials have said for certain that Zawahri was in the compounds under attack.

"The way these people are resisting, we think there is someone important over there," one official said. "We think al-Zawahri may be holed up there."

But an official of Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime said on Friday he doubted that.

"According to my information Dr Ayman al-Zawahri is not in that area," said a former Taliban defense minister, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund.

"It would be speculation to say where senior al Qaeda leaders have taken shelter because they keep on changing their hideouts," Akhund told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.

A Pakistan army officer said government forces had arrested 26 suspected militants, many of whom appeared to be foreigners from central Asia, since Thursday.

Many weapons had been seized as well as $700,000 in cash. He declined to say what, if any, information authorities had gleaned from the suspects.

U.S.-led troops are also striking from the Afghan side in what the Pentagon is calling a "hammer and anvil" operation.

U.S. officials have said the secretive Task Force 121, a commando unit involved in the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, was now on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier.

The FBI lists Zawahri among its "Most Wanted Terrorists" with a bounty of $25 million on his head. He has been indicted in the United States for his alleged role in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. (Additional reporting by Tahir Ikram, Robert Birsel and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad)

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