Huma Aamir Malik & Agencies
Friday 19 March 2004
Last Update 19 March 2004 12:00 am
ISLAMABAD, 19 March 2004 — Pakistani troops believe they have surrounded a “high value target” during a battle with Al-Qaeda militants loyal to Osama Bin Laden close to the Afghan border, President Pervez Musharraf told CNN yesterday.
“(Judging by) the resistance that is being offered by the people there, we feel that there may be a high value target,” Musharraf said. He declined to speculate on his identity. Pakistani forces sent in heavy guns and helicopters yesterday in a fresh offensive to flush out suspected Al-Qaeda fighters and their Pakistani tribesmen allies near the Afghan border. Early in the morning authorities moved into the area, where paramilitary troops and militants on Tuesday fought their bloodiest battle in Pakistan’s new drive against militants, and used loudspeakers to urge villagers to leave. Three hours later the offensive began.
“Paramilitary troops backed by army and helicopter gunships are taking part in the operation. We are using heavy weapons because they are also using heavy weapons against our forces,” said Mehmood Shah, a top civilian official in the area. In all, several thousand Pakistani troops were involved, a security official said.
Suspected militants attacked a Pakistan Army camp near the Afghan border early yesterday with grenades and machineguns, killing a major and another soldier, officials said. Three soldiers were also wounded in the attack on the camp at Shawal in North Waziristan, about 40 kilometers north of the site of a major military offensive against Al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters in South Waziristan.
Sixteen soldiers and 24 rebels were killed in the fighting on Tuesday. The dead rebels included men believed to be foreigners loyal to Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network, officials say. Up to 600 foreign militants are believed to be hiding in the wild tribal belt near the Afghan border, where they are sheltered by conservative, fiercely independent tribesmen. Afghanistan says members of the ousted Taleban regime use Pakistan as a base to launch attacks in Afghanistan.
Residents near the battle said they could hear artillery being fired by the government side and see columns of smoke snaking into the sky. The militants were returning sporadic fire.
Troops had sealed off the area around the village of Kaloosha in the South Waziristan region where the fighting was taking place, he said. In a separate incident, two Pakistani soldiers were killed when gunmen ambushed a convoy early yesterday in the North Waziristan tribal region, about 80 kilometers to the north of the main fighting, security officials said.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan described the offensive in South Waziristan as a “major operation”, involving the army as well as paramilitary forces.
The Pakistani operation coincides with a new offensive by 13,500 US-led troops in Afghanistan to track down militants on the Afghan side of the frontier, including the world’s most wanted man, Bin Laden.
The latest fighting erupted as US Secretary of State Colin Powell met Pakistan leaders in the capital, Islamabad.
Powell said the operation was a sign Pakistan was intensifying its crackdown on militancy and the United States was urging it to do all it could to track down Bin Laden, if he was still alive.
“If he is alive and active, and evidence suggests that he is, and if he is in the area of the Pakistan and Afghan border, it is a very difficult area to find someone who does not want to be found,” Powell said in an interview with Geo TV. “But we are looking. Our troops on the Afghan side of the border, and we have been encouraging our Pakistani friends to do as much as they can, in the tribal areas and other remote sections of the Pakistan border.”
Hundreds of people, including many women and children, have been driven away on tractors and trucks from Kaloosha to the town of Wana 15 kilometers away.
Meanwhile, Islamabad yesterday brushed aside a purported Al-Qaeda statement which dubbed it an American “lackey” and threatened attacks similar to last week’s bombing in Spain. “It only strengthens our resolve to fight terrorism,” military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told AFP.
“We want to rid the country of terrorism and we will continue to combat it in all its forms.” The Al-Qaeda statement received by the London-based Al-Qods Al-Arabi newspaper Wednesday warned that Japan, Italy, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - “America’s lackeys” — would be hit with attacks similar to the Madrid bombing that claimed some 200 lives.