| Pakistani soldiers make a mock arrest of their colleague posing as a terrorist in Multan. (AFP)
Wana (Pakistan), Feb. 28 (Reuters): Pakistani troops opened fire on a van carrying suspected Islamic militants today, killing at least 11 people in a region where forces are hunting Osama bin Laden, officials said.
An intelligence official said those killed in the South Waziristan tribal region may not have been militants and that it was “mistaken fire”, but a military statement said some may have been “terrorists”. The incident took place after a base of Pakistani soldiers who have been hunting fighters from bin Laden’s al Qaida came under attack.
The Pakistani military said the deaths occurred in crossfire after the army post came under mortar attack and a checkpoint came under fire from two to three vehicles. “The chances of some civilians having been killed cannot be ruled out,” it said.
Witnesses said the dead were five local tribesmen and six Afghans. A military statement confirmed 11 reported deaths and said 16 people had been arrested.
Fiercely independent tribesmen in the region bordering Afghanistan are sympathetic to al Qaida and bin Laden. They have been angered by the Pakistani operations and reports of civilian deaths will not make the military’s task easier.
“The situation in Waziristan is very tense after the incident, the people are very angry,” a resident said.
The intelligence official said four armed men travelling in a car fired in the air as troops were trying to defuse rockets in Shulam, a village near Wana, capital of South Waziristan.
He said troops radioed a message to a nearby military post and troops fired on the van, mistaking it for the fleeing car.
Today’s incident came as US and Pakistani officials denied an Iranian state radio report quoting “an informed source” as saying bin Laden had been captured in the border region.
A senior US defence official called the report “another piece of stray voltage that’s passing around out there” while the US military spokesman in Kabul Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan Hilferty said he had heard nothing about it.
Pakistan’s foreign minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri said he was aware of the Iranian report, but added: “We cannot confirm it at all”.
Pakistani troops earlier this week arrested 20 suspects in an operation against al Qaida and Taliban militants in South Waziristan. Officials said none were leading al Qaida militants.
But US military officials in Afghanistan have spoken of a renewed urgency in hunting down key terror figures, including bin Laden and have previously expressed confidence that the world’s most wanted man would be captured this year.
They have said that US-led troops in Afghanistan and Pakistani troops were moving toward coordinated operations —“a hammer and anvil approach” — to prevent fleeing al Qaida fighters escaping across the border. Elsewhere in Pakistan today, a suicide bomber blew himself up and slightly wounded three people when his explosives detonated prematurely at a minority Shia mosque in the city of Rawalpindi adjoining Islamabad, officials said.