March 18: Pakistani troops may have surrounded Osama bin Laden’s number two during a pitched battle on the wild Afghan frontier late tonight, officials said in Islamabad.
President Pervez Musharraf told CNN that the ferocity of resistance his forces were meeting had led generals to believe they were shielding a “high-value target”.
The disclosure came a few hours after visiting US secretary of state Colin Powell said in Islamabad that Pakistan would be named a “major non-Nato ally” by America. The diplomatic-military coup will make it easier for Pakistan to acquire US arms.
Addressing the concerns of an uneasy Delhi, Powell later said America wanted to have a similar relationship with India, too.
After dropping the “high-value” bombshell, Musharraf would not speculate on whether it might be bin Laden himself or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri. However, a senior government official in Islamabad told Reuters that Zawahri, bin Laden’s right-hand man in the al Qaida network, may indeed be surrounded.
“A pitched battle is going on there. The way these people are resisting, we think there is someone important over there,” the senior official said. “We think al-Zawahri may be holed up there.”
US troops have been involved in days of intense activity against suspected al Qaida fighters in Waziristan, a lawless mountainous region along the Afghan frontier. But in Washington, officials had no information on a major capture.
Musharraf told CNN in an interview that the conclusion was based on analysis of the pattern of battle.
“(Judging by) the resistance that is being offered by the people there, we feel that there may be a high-value target,” he said. “They are giving fierce resistance, so he (the Pakistani commander) is reasonably sure there is a high-value target there,” the President said.
Asked if bin Laden or Zawahri were trapped, Musharraf said: “I am not going to say that because my previous experience is that whatever I say, headlines come that ‘he says Zawahri is there, or Osama’. I can’t. It would just be a guess.
“But I think that very likely there is a high-value target. Who I don’t know.”
A senior western intelligence source said this month that Zawahri and bin Laden were still believed to be close to each other, both somewhere in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.
Though on the run since the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Zawahri has continued to play a vital propagandist role for al Qaida with a series of audio tapes inciting followers to strike US and western targets.
Zawahri and bin Laden were seen strolling together on a rock-strewn hillside in a video broadcast by Al Jazeera on the second anniversary of the attacks of September 11.