- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

KARIKOT, Pakistan — An estimated 300 to 400 tribesmen and foreigners hunkered down in mud fortresses yesterday, exchanging fire with thousands of Pakistani troops laying siege to the militants and hunting for al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Hundreds of civilians poured out of the battle zone in the tribal South Waziristan region, some wounded and others carrying their meager possessions — clothes, carpets, pots and pans. Many said they knew nothing about the militants in their midst and expressed outrage about the army assault.

Authorities hoped to wrap up the raid “during the next 48 hours” — by tomorrow afternoon, Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayyat said. Dozens have been killed in the four-day operation.

The Pakistani forces were joined by “a dozen or so” American intelligence agents who were “assisting Pakistan in technical intelligence and surveillance,” said army spokesman Gen. Shaukat Sultan.

Across the Afghan border a few miles away, U.S. and Afghan forces have tightened a net along the rugged frontier and arrested midlevel terrorist leaders in recent days, authorities said.

About 300 to 400 militants — a mix of foreigners and Pakistani tribesmen — were facing off against the military in several villages including Kaloosha, Azam Warsak and Shin Warsak, according to Gen. Sultan.

He said authorities’ intelligence assessment was that a high-level fugitive was among the fighters but that he had not been seen; thus it was not clear whether the man was al-Zawahri.

“The type of resistance, the type of preparation of their defensive positions, the hardened fortresses they have made, means we can assume that there could probably be some high-value target there,” Gen. Sultan said from the army press office in Rawalpindi, a city near the capital, Islamabad.

He backed off claims by four senior Pakistani officials that captured militants had revealed that al-Zawahri was among them, and possibly wounded.

This semiautonomous region, which has resisted outside control for centuries, has long been considered a likely hiding place for the top two al Qaeda leaders — but there was no indication Osama bin Laden was with al-Zawahri, a 52-year-old Egyptian surgeon.

A Taliban spokesman, Abdul Samad, told the Associated Press by telephone that al-Zawahri and bin Laden were hiding in Afghanistan, far from the Pakistani assault.

“Muslims of the world — don’t worry about them, these two guests, they are fine,” he said.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Thursday that a “high value” target was believed trapped, and four senior Pakistani officials told AP that intelligence indicated the target was al-Zawahri.

President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told CNN yesterday that a “fierce battle was raging” but the United States did not have any independent confirmation that it was al-Zawahri who was surrounded.

Under pressure from Washington, Pakistan has sent 70,000 troops into the region since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, which were carried out by al Qaeda. This week’s operation is by far the bloodiest.

The raid began Tuesday as a routine patrol and search for a couple of tribesmen accused of harboring foreign militants, but authorities rushed in reinforcements after paramilitary forces “barged into a hardened terrorists’ den,” Gen. Sultan said.

He accused the militants of using women and children as human shields in the mud buildings, preventing the troops from using artillery. But he acknowledged that the local “population is on the whole sympathetic” to the fighters.

Gen. Sultan said the Pakistani forces had surrounded an area of 20 square miles centered on Shin Warsak, using an inner and outer cordon of troops numbering a “couple of thousand.” He said the military was “quite certain that nobody could have escaped.”

Two militants were killed and eight were captured yesterday, he said. Among those captured were five foreigners along with a large cache of weapons. At least 43 persons — 17 soldiers and 26 suspected militants — were killed earlier this week in fighting in the area.

In Karikot, a town a few miles from the heaviest fighting, elders convened an emergency jirga, or tribal council, and accused the army of breaking long-standing agreements for conduct in the region.

At the Rehman Medical Complex in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, two sisters — Haseena, 10 and Asmeena, 2 — received first aid after being struck by shrapnel. The girls’ 12-year-old brother, Din Muhammad, was killed when a shell landed near their house in the village of Kaga Panga.

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