Friday, February 27, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani forces moved into selected areas along their country’s border with Afghanistan after satellite-telephone intercepts indicated al Qaeda members were hiding there, security officials said yesterday.

There was no indication al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was involved in the conversations, but two intelligence officials said participants discussed a man referred to as “Sheik” — a code name for bin Laden.

“Some people who were speaking in Arabic have been heard saying, ‘Sheik is in good health,’” one of the intelligence officials said.

The conversations took place last year, the official said, but it was not clear when the United States shared its information with Pakistan. The intelligence officials spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Although security officials caution they have no confirmed information on bin Laden’s whereabouts, Pakistani rapid-reaction forces have been deployed to specific areas along the border, a mountainous landscape that runs 2,000 miles from the Himalayas in Pakistan’s northern territories to the desert of southwestern Baluchistan.

“We are not close to capturing Osama, but all efforts and operations are directed at finding clues about his whereabouts,” a senior government official said. “It is a tiring and long process.”

The operations began before a sweep earlier this week in the town of Wana, 190 miles west of the capital, Islamabad. Although authorities said the Wana operation has ended, fresh paramilitary troops in 25 vehicles rolled into the town late yesterday, setting up new checkpoints and examining documents.

Troops this week leveled three homes and arrested 25 persons, but there was no indication that any senior al Qaeda leader was among them. Most of those arrested appeared to be tribesmen from a region whose inhabitants are linked by language and culture to Afghan Pashtuns, the ethnic group that was the Taliban’s power base.

Pakistan has so far confirmed only the operation near Wana, but officials said the troops are “quietly operating” in other “marked areas.”

American counterterrorism experts, meanwhile, were meeting with their counterparts in Islamabad. The delegation will visit Pakistan for two days, said Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Rauf Chaudhry.

Pakistani officials said security forces are vigorously chasing any clue the suspects might provide — and hunting down all members of al Qaeda.

“There are no safe havens available for them in Pakistan,” said Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the spokesman for the Pakistani army.

U.S., Pakistani and Afghan officials have long suspected that bin Laden has been hiding out in the border region. There has been no confirmation or any hard evidence of his whereabouts in more than two years.

Pakistan has launched four operations in the tribal areas since al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

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