- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

Pakistani troops yesterday surrounded and exchanged fire with a group of al Qaeda fighters who might be protecting Ayman al-Zawahri, trusted No. 2 man to Osama bin Laden.

As the fighting raged along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the mountainous South Waziristan region, some Pakistani officials said al-Zawahri was cornered. An intelligence official told the Associated Press that captured fighters said al-Zawahri had been wounded.

The fighters stubbornly were holed up in two fortlike huts, refusing to surrender despite pounding from artillery and helicopter gunships.

“The kind of resistance that the troops are facing indicates that among the militants there may be a high-profile al Qaeda figure, possibly al-Zawahri,” Information Minister Sheikh Rashid told Agence France-Presse.

There were no reports that bin Laden was in the area.

A Pakistani security official told Agence France-Presse that Pakistani troops were preparing early today to storm the villages.

“We are pounding the area with mortars and artillery to soften the stiff resistance before making a final push in the next few hours,” the official said.

Killing or capturing al-Zawahri would be a major victory for President Bush in the global war against Islamic terrorists and would mark the most important elimination of an al Qaeda operative in a year.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf told CNN, “We feel that they may have a high-value target. I can’t say who.”

Gen. Musharraf, who had spoken to a commander, added, “He’s reasonably sure there’s a high-value target there.”

Gen. Musharraf has come close to assassination recently, narrowly avoiding roadside bombs near his moving limousine.

Gen. Musharraf, in recent months, did something few Pakistan leaders have done: He sent thousands of troops inside the vast, ungoverned border areas with Afghanistan to attack al Qaeda and Taliban militants. Bin Laden and al-Zawahri are thought to move among the various tribes in seeking shelter and protection.

But the introduction of Pakistani troops and pressure from U.S. troops on the Afghan side have produced better intelligence and forced al Qaeda members to move out in the open.

The Pentagon shifted elements of the secret Task Force 121 to Afghanistan in recent weeks. The unit is made up of Delta Force and SEAL commandos, CIA paramilitaries and a deep-cover military intelligence-gathering unit that has used the code name Grey Fox.

U.S. officials said U.S. troops do not operate inside Pakistan. But Task Force 121 might be authorized to enter Pakistan if actionable intelligence on bin Laden is received, officials said.

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