| Pakistani paramilitary troops maintain vigil at an outpost in Angoor Adda, near Wana. (AP)
Kabul, Feb. 25 (Reuters): Time is running out for Osama bin Laden, the US military said today, as American and Pakistani forces step up operations against al Qaida and Taliban militants along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier.
In the latest statement of growing confidence that al Qaida’s mastermind and other senior militant figures will be captured or killed soon, the US military in Afghanistan spoke of “renewed urgency” in hunting down key terror figures.
“If we knew where Osama bin Laden was we’d already have him,” Lieutenant Colonel Matt Beevers told reporters in Kabul, referring to recent reports that the world’s most wanted man had been located on Pakistan’s side of the border. But he added: “We feel that really the sand in this guy’s hourglass... are running out.” Beevers said the same applied to two other wanted figures; the ousted Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and renegade warlord and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
“We remain committed and reaffirmed in our effort to track these guys down and get them.”
Beevers welcomed an operation by Pakistani forces in tribal areas that border Afghanistan yesterday during which 25 people were detained.
There were conflicting views on reports in Pakistan that Khaled al-Zawahri, son of al Qaida number two Ayman al-Zawahri, had been caught in the last two to three days and taken to the US military headquarters in Afghanistan north of Kabul.
Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan called the reports “wild speculation”, adding: “We have no information yet.”
A Pakistani intelligence source said today all those held were locals apart from three women who had Kazakh passports. He said five detainees had been released. According to Pakistani military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan, foreign passports, weapons, ammunition and audio tapes had been found during the raid.
“Clearly (US-led) coalition forces support Pakistan army’s efforts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas,” Beevers said. “They continue to do an outstanding job.” He described cooperation between US and Pakistan forces as “outstanding”.
The US military has complained in the past that Pakistan has not done enough to hunt militants in rugged frontier areas.
The raids in tribal areas follow revelations that the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb leaked nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, leaving Islamabad keen to convince doubters of its commitment to the US-led “war on terror”. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld is due in Kabul later this week.
The two sides want to create a “hammer and anvil” effect by stopping militants fleeing across the border in either direction. Security analysts say that even with better cooperation and more resources dedicated to catching top militants, the task remained a huge one.
Beevers said the deployment of civilian-military teams in volatile areas of Afghanistan had helped in intelligence gathering as well as in improving infrastructure.
He described the shift in US tactics in recent months towards counter-insurgency operations and away from major engagements with Taliban fighters that flared up last year. That, combined with efforts to rebuild the war-shattered country and elections in June, will marginalise rebels waging a guerrilla war that has claimed over 550 lives in seven months.