- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

PESHAWAR, Pakistan U.S. forces and Pakistani troops searched an Islamic school in a region near the Afghan border that has become a new focus for U.S. forces hunting adherents of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, tribal elders and Muslim clerics said yesterday.
Both U.S. and Pakistani officials have recently said that a small U.S. force is operating in the wild tribal region, but the comments were the first reliable reports of U.S. troops spotted by people in the area.
"The Pakistani forces with the help of American soldiers on Friday stormed a religious school at Darpa Khel to search for al Qaeda men," said Maulvi Abdul Hafeez, a leading cleric in Mir Ali, about 200 miles southwest of Peshawar. "We condemn this Pakistan-U.S. operation."
The building was empty and no arrests were made, Maulvi Hafeez said. The school was set up by Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, he said.
Afghan Islamic Press, a private news agency based in Pakistan, reported that about 10 U.S. soldiers and 200 Pakistani paramilitary troops attacked the school at Darpa Khel on Friday evening.
At MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., Cmdr. Frank Merriman, a spokesman at the Central Command headquarters of Gen. Tommy Franks, said "We really can't confirm ongoing operations."
Gen. Franks had in previous days denied reports that coalition forces have entered Pakistan in search of al Qaeda members, but several Washington officials have said U.S. personnel already are in rugged northwestern Pakistan.
A U.S. defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said U.S. troops would be sent in if reconnaissance were to find any fighters.
The Bush administration sees the entry of U.S. personnel into the tribal regions as the beginning of a dangerous but necessary phase in the hunt for al Qaeda fighters who have taken refuge outside Afghanistan.
Tribal areas lie west of the capital, Islamabad, just inside the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan's Paktia and Paktika provinces. They are traditional strongholds for bin Laden, the Saudi-born fugitive who heads al Qaeda.
U.S. officials say Mr. Haqqani, the Taliban's former minister of frontier affairs, has been supporting efforts by al Qaeda and Taliban fighters intent on regrouping.

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