| Pakistani paramilitary troops guard a checkpoint near Wana in the South Waziristan tribal region. (Reuters)
Islamabad, March 18 (Reuters): Pakistani troops believe they have surrounded a “high value target” during a battle with al Qaida militants loyal to Osama bin Laden close to the Afghan border, President Pervez Musharraf said today.
“(Judging by) the resistance that is being offered by the people there, we feel that there may be a high value target,” Musharraf told CNN today.
He declined to speculate on his identity but a Pakistani official told Reuters it may be Osama bin Laden’s number two — Ayman al-Zawahri.
Musharraf said he had spoken to a commander. “They are giving fierce resistance, so he (the commander) is reasonably sure there is a high-value target there,” Musharraf said.
Asked if it could be bin Laden or his deputy Zawahri, 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 Pakistani government official said: “A pitched battle is going on there. The way these people are resisting, we think there is someone important over there. We think al-Zawahri may be holed up there.”
Pakistani forces sent in heavy guns and helicopters today in a fresh offensive to flush out suspected al Qaida fighters and their Pakistani tribesmen allies near the Afghan border.
Early in the morning authorities moved into the area, where paramilitary troops and militants on Tuesday fought their bloodiest battle in Pakistan’s new drive against militants, and used loudspeakers to urge villagers to leave. Three hours later the offensive began.
“Paramilitary troops backed by army and helicopter gunships are taking part in the operation. We are using heavy weapons because they are also using heavy weapons against our forces,” said Mehmood Shah, a top civilian official in the area.
In all, several thousand Pakistani troops were involved, a security official said.
There was no immediate word on casualties.
Sixteen soldiers and 24 rebels were killed in the fighting on Tuesday. The dead rebels included men believed to be foreigners loyal to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network, officials say.
Up to 600 foreign militants are believed to be hiding in the wild tribal belt near the Afghan border, where they are sheltered by conservative, fiercely independent Pakistani tribesmen.
Afghanistan says members of the ousted Taliban regime use Pakistan as a base to launch attacks in Afghanistan.
Residents near the battle said they could hear artillery being fired by the government side and see columns of smoke snaking into the sky.
The militants were returning sporadic fire. Troops had sealed off the area around the village of Kaloosha in the South Waziristan region where the fighting was taking place, he said.