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Pak raid for al Qaida men draws blank

Peshawar, Sept. 4 (Reuters): Pakistani paramilitary troops raided a village in a tribal region bordering Afghanistan today where six al Qaida men were thought to be hiding but found none of the foreign suspects, officials said.

Local government officials said four people had been detained in the raid on the village of Jani Kheil and five more in the nearby town of Bannu, but all were local people, not the Arab suspects the authorities had been searching for.

Among those detained was Maulala Shamsul Haq, a religious scholar who was thought to have given refuge to the wanted men, and his nephew, said a government official, who did not want to be named.

“In all, four people were arrested from the village and five clerics,” he said. “All of them are Pakistanis.”

He said authorities were still searching for the suspects, whom they thought might be hiding in or near the village.

The official said the troops destroyed Haq’s house with rocket fire after searching it. He said there were no casualties.

Tribal elder Malik Dil Nawaz said earlier there were no foreigners or al Qaida members in the village. He said six men the authorities were looking for were all local people.

Officials said 1,800 paramilitary troops had taken up positions near the northwestern village for two days before the operation, which was led by the army after the villagers refused to hand over the suspects despite protracted negotiations.

Officials said the men they were searching for were “Arabs”. People living near the village said five of them were thought to be Saudi Arabian or Indonesian. Pakistani authorities earlier brought in Muslim scholars to negotiate with tribesmen in the village, about 170 km southwest of Peshawar, the capital of Northwest Frontier Province.

A government official said the suspected militants had been in custody but were snatched by heavily armed tribesmen from detention at a military post near Jani Kheil on Monday.

Large numbers of al Qaida members and their Taliban allies are thought to have crossed into Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal region after US forces began pursuing them in Afghanistan last year.

The US blames al Qaida and its leader, Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington and has vowed to hunt them down.

Gold shipment denied

Pakistan’s coast guard and interior ministry dismissed today a report that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network had smuggled shipments of gold from Karachi to Sudan in recent weeks.

Pervez Akhter, director general of the Pakistan coast guard, said smuggling gold via sea in the July-August period would be difficult given “high tides and rough seas”.

“And we are also vigilant, especially after September 11. I am sure nothing of the sort has happened.”

A report in yesterday’s Washington Post citing European, Pakistani and US investigators said several shipments of gold were taken by boat from Karachi to either Iran or the UAE and flown by chartered plane to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.

Iftikhar Ahmed, a spokesman for Pakistan’s interior ministry, also rejected the report. “We have no knowledge about any gold smuggling by al Qaida from Pakistan,” he said.

The US has mounted a big military campaign in Afghanistan to track Osama down. It has also frozen millions of dollars of assets of him and his associates.

It was not clear how much gold had been moved, but US officials said the quantity was significant and an indication that al Qaida and members of the Taliban militia still had access to large financial reserves.

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