- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

WANA, Pakistan — Military forces discovered a mile-long tunnel leading from a besieged mud fortress to a dry stream bed, and said yesterday the secret passage may have allowed top al Qaeda suspects to escape toward the Afghan frontier.

The revelation came as Pakistani authorities began DNA tests to identify suspected foreign terrorists killed in the weeklong offensive in South Waziristan, where thousands of troops have been battling hundreds of militants.

Forces first found a tunnel connecting the heavily fortified compounds of two tribal elders — Nek Mohammed and Sharif Khan — who have been leading supporters of some 500 to 600 foreign terrorists and tribesmen, said Brig. Mahmood Shah, chief of security for the tribal areas.

From that passage, they found the mile-long tunnel running under the town of Kaloosha, about nine miles from the Afghan border, to a dry stream bed on the edge of the craggy, treacherous mountains that straddle the frontier.

“There is a possibility that the tunnel may have been used at the start of the operation,” Brig. Shah told journalists in Peshawar, the provincial capital.

Three senior officials have said they believe al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahri, may have been at the site, though the government has repeatedly said it does not know who is inside. President Pervez Musharraf said Thursday that a “high-value” target was likely involved.

The tunnel, which undoubtedly took months to construct, was another indication that an important fugitive was in the area at some point. South Waziristan is considered the most likely hideout for al-Zawahri and his boss, Osama bin Laden.

The Pakistani military has set up a 20-square-mile cordon around Kaloosha and several other tribal towns in South Waziristan, and remains confident nobody has escaped the area.

But the cordon did not exist at the disastrous start of the operation March 16, when Pakistani forces who thought they were going to arrest local tribesmen were surprised by a ferocious barrage from within the compound walls. Fifteen soldiers and 26 militants died in the initial assault; the military sent in thousands of reinforcements over the following two days.

Pakistan’s military said it was conducting DNA tests to identify six suspected foreign terrorists killed in the fighting, but would not elaborate on whether they included any important terror figures.

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