- 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.

A senior U.S. official in Washington said he could not confirm Pakistan’s statement that it might have al-Zawahri cornered.

“These are tribal areas, and [Pakistan has] been conducting an operation up there for the last couple of days,” the official said. “There’s been some fierce fighting up there.”

Earlier in the day, Pakistani soldiers and gunships attacked homes in the villages of Kalushah and Azam Warsak in South Warziristan — suspected hideouts for hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Agence France-Presse quoted retired Brig. Mahmood Shad, who heads security in the tribal areas, as saying the operation was a resumption of an assault from earlier in the week that exposed the military’s lack of preparedness for such fierce resistance.

At least 41 persons —15 soldiers and 26 terrorists — were killed in fighting on Tuesday.

A medical doctor born in Egypt, al-Zawahri formed a terror group in his home country, determined to bring fundamentalist rule through the indiscriminate killing of civilians. He joined forces with bin Laden and al Qaeda in 1998 and has been at bin Laden’s side ever since.

He joined bin Laden in a 1998 “fatwa” that called on followers to kill all Westerners.

He said of the September 11 attacks that killed more than 3,000 people: “This great victory that was achieved is only thanks to God. Our 19 brothers gave their lives for God. God chose them for this great victory that we’re living now.”

Washington is offering $25 million for information leading to the capture or killing of bin Laden or al-Zawahri. Some lawmakers want to increase the bounty on bin Laden’s head to $50 million.

“All the senior leaders of al Qaeda will be brought to justice,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan that began Operation Mountain Storm on March 7.

Eliminating al-Zawahri would be the biggest capture since the CIA and Pakistani authorities nabbed Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in March 2003. The former al Qaeda No. 3 man, who planned the September 11 attacks, was seized as he slept in a house near the capital of Islamabad. He is being held in an undisclosed country.

Pakistan is attempting to persuade more than 100 tribal leaders to cooperate in the hunt for bin Laden and al-Zawahri and provide information on militants. The government says most have provided information.

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