| Pakistani commandos leave their base in South Waziristan for the battle with al Qaida fighters. (AFP)
Angor Adda (Pakistan), Oct. 2 (Reuters): Pakistani forces killed 12 suspected Taliban and al Qaida fighters today and arrested 10 in an operation near the Afghan border touted as a demonstration of commitment to the US-led war on terror.
Small-arms fire crackled and a Cobra helicopter swooped overhead firing machineguns at positions in the rugged tribal country just a few kilometres from the Afghan frontier.
Reporters taken by helicopter to the scene, 350 km southwest of Islamabad, saw four dead bodies under blankets and military officials said there were eight more bodies lying where they fell, some with Central Asian features.
“The fighting is still going on,” said Major General Faisal Alavi. “Some of these guys got out of the houses and have gone into folds in the ground and into the trees. Our guys are trying to flush them out, but they are putting up very stiff resistance.”
Two Pakistani soldiers were wounded by grenades.
Ten fighters were arrested, four possibly of Arabic origin and six apparently Pakistanis or Afghans. Some of the detainees were blindfolded and all had their hands tied behind their backs.
A large cache of arms, mines and basic surveillance equipment was found in one of the rebel compounds, located around 2 km from the dusty frontier town of Angor Adda.
Alavi, commander of special forces in the area where the operation is taking place, said some captives appeared to be from Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime. The presence of foreign fighters at the scene suggested al Qaida involvement.
The sweep came on the same day US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage had been expected in Pakistan on a regional tour. But his visit was delayed because of “scheduling issues”, said foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan.
The visit by Armitage, who has questioned the commitment of some in Pakistan’s security community, would be rescheduled, Khan said. He is due to tour Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Alavi said Pakistani troops had surrounded a compound late yesterday where they believed al Qaida fighters were hiding. He said about 40 militants had been seen crossing into Pakistan’s semi-autonomous South Waziristan agency carrying the bodies of fighters killed in clashes inside Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has long accused Islamabad of not doing enough to stop Islamic militants it says cross from Pakistan’s remote border regions to carry out strikes on US and Afghan targets. Most of the cross-border raids have been blamed on remnants of the hardline Taliban regime ousted from power in late 2001 and resurgent in some parts of Afghanistan.
Major General Shaukat Sultan, Pakistan military spokesman, said the rebels in the latest clash could have been involved in the raids, including one on US soldiers near their base at Shkin this week in which one soldier was killed and two injured. Many Taliban and al Qaida guerrillas are believed to have taken refuge in Pakistan’s border areas since US bombing began in Afghanistan two years ago. Pakistan says it has arrested about 500 al Qaida members since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US. They include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the September 11 plot. Pakistani and US officials suspect that Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, may be hiding in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area.
An audio tape purporting to be of Zawahri was aired on Arabic television channels last week in which he urged Pakistanis to overthrow Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for “betraying” Islam by supporting US military action in Afghanistan.
A Pakistani military statement said no foreign troops or agents were involved in the operation, a sensitive issue in a country where the Islamic right is flexing its political muscle.