| An aerial picture of the Pakistani tribal village of Azam Warsak, 16 km from Wana in the South Waziristan area. (AFP)
Wana (Pakistan), Feb. 24 (Reuters): Pakistani troops backed by helicopters and artillery detained 25 people, including Arabs, in raids on hideouts of al Qaida and Taliban militants today in a remote tribal area near the Afghan border, officials said.
Military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan said the “routine” operation followed a tipoff about “foreign terrorists” who failed to surrender by a February 20 deadline.
He said a few foreigners had been detained along with passports, weapons, ammunition and audio cassettes. Interior minister Faisal Saleh Hayat said a “sizeable” number of suspects had been detained and there had been no casualties.
Intelligence officials said 25 people, including Saudi, Egyptian and Yemeni nationals, were among those held and others could be Uzbeks or Chechens. They said the detainees included men and women. Sultan said some locals were later released.
“We are trying to establish their identity,” one intelligence source said, but added that no top al Qaida figures were thought to be among those held.
The raids near the town of Wana, some 360 km southwest of Islamabad, came after a visit to Pakistan this month by CIA director George Tenet and ahead of visit to Afghanistan by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld this week.
Pakistan has been criticised by some US officials for not doing enough to pursue militants in its rugged borderlands, even though it has handed over more than 500 al Qaida suspects to the US since the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The Wana raids also follow embarrassing revelations that the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb leaked nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, leaving Islamabad anxious to convince doubters of its commitment to the US-led “war on terror”.
A Pakistani military statement said the operation showed Islamabad’s “continued resolve”. Today’s operation involved heavily armed regular and paramilitary troops backed by helicopters.
A Reuters reporter saw troops destroy two houses with cannon fire in the village of Zarai Letta, about 15 km west of the town of Wana, while helicopters flew overhead. Seven suspects were seen being driven away in military vehicles, but it was unclear if they were foreigners or local tribesmen.
Authorities in South Waziristan have been pressuring tribesmen in recent months to hand over al Qaida suspects and Taliban fighters. In October, eight al Qaida or Taliban suspects were killed in an operation in the same tribal area. They included Ahmed Saeed Khadr, an Egyptian-born Canadian thought to be an al Qaida financier, and a top Chinese Islamic militant Hasan Mahsum.
This year, US military officials in Kabul boldly predicted the capture of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2004, an event that would give a huge boost to President George W. Bush’s bid for re-election in November. However, they have since issued more cautious statements and yesterday a US military spokesman dismissed a British newspaper report that bin Laden was “boxed in” by US and British special forces in Pakistani mountains along the Afghan border and being monitored by a US spy satellite.