- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A senior al Qaeda leader has been seriously wounded and is on the run, Pakistan’s military spokesman said yesterday.

Recently gathered intelligence and eyewitness accounts indicate that al Qaeda commander Tahir Yuldash was badly wounded and is in hiding, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said. He conceded, though, that Pakistani forces are not close to capturing Yuldash.

“He might have slipped away, he’s on the run,” Gen. Sultan said.

Yuldash, also known as Tahir Yuldashev, is the leader of an Uzbek terror group — Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — which Pakistani officials say has been subsumed by al Qaeda since the September 11 attacks in the United States.

He was previously mentioned as one of two likely “high-value targets” cornered when Pakistan’s military began the sweep of South Waziristan on March 16. For a while, al Qaeda No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri was suspected to be the target.

Yuldash and his group were responsible for repeated car bombings and kidnappings in Uzbekistan before the September 11 attacks, a State Department report said.

Despite the apparent escape, Gen. Sultan said the operation in Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal areas had been successful. He said the military had killed 60 suspected militants and captured 163.

The army also took a militant hide-out, complete with communications equipment, tunnels and heavy weaponry. Gen. Sultan said the operation was in its final stages.

The operation has left some 50 soldiers and at least a dozen civilians dead. Some of Pakistan’s fiercely independent Pashtun tribes, who live in Waziristan and other tribal areas, also have resisted the army’s incursion.

On Friday, a woman found the bodies of eight soldiers, shot at close range with their hands tied behind their backs. The soldiers were abducted March 22 during a rocket attack on a military convoy north of the battle zone. Militants are suspected of holding another 12 soldiers and two government officials hostage.

Tribal leaders said yesterday that the hostages might be freed by today.

President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally of the United States, has deployed 70,000 troops along the border with Afghanistan since the September 11 attacks in an attempt to prevent cross-border attacks.

U.S. and Afghan forces have deployed on the other side of the border as part of a new offensive against al Qaeda and Taliban forces in that country.

Speaking on Pakistan television yesterday, Gen. Musharraf defended the operation, insisting that the militants in the tribal areas are a threat to the nation.

“Pakistan is being damaged,” he said. “We have tried everything … we have given amnesty and we have said if you surrender you will not be handed over, you can live here, stay here, but live in peace.”

“Nobody surrendered. So what do you do?” Gen. Musharraf said. “We have to act and we will act strongly.”

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