| Local tribesmen flee from the offensive near Wana in South Waziristan. (Reuters)
Wana (Pakistan), March 19 (Reuters): Pakistani forces said they were fighting a fierce battle today with 300-400 foreign militants and Pakistani tribal allies after encircling them near the Afghan border.
Troops pounded the besieged militants, who might include Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri as well as many other al Qaida fighters, with artillery for most of the day while helicopters attacked them from above.
“They are surrounded and they are trying to break the cordon and get away,” military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan told a news briefing in Islamabad. He dismissed reports that Zawahri had managaed to get away. “From the cordon we have put around these places, we are certain nobody would have escaped,” he said.
Other Pakistani officials denied financial market rumours that bin Laden himself had been captured.
A Taliban spokesman was quoted as demanding that US and Pakistan forces call off the hunt for Taliban and al Qaida militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. “We will carry out more attacks against international coalition forces if they continue to chase us,” he said in taped comments reported by Al Jazeera television. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, ousted from power in Afghanistan by US-led forces in late 2001, was safe, he said.
President Pervez Musharraf said yesterday the ferocity of the resistance led generals to believe the rebels were shielding a “high-value target”.
Government officials have said the prominent figure might be Zawahri. But Sultan said authorities had been unable to determine if Zawahri was actually there. Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor, is regarded as the brains of al Qaida. He is believed to be one of the key figures behind the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
The fighting, pitting thousands of government troops against several hundred militants, is in the remote, often lawless and largely autonomous region of Waziristan, centred on an area to the west of the town of Wana that includes Shin Warsak village. Western intelligence sources say Zawahri and bin Laden are believed to be close to each other, somewhere in Waziristan. A government official in the border region who asked not to be named said 15 soldiers had been killed in the fighting since yesterday. “There’s ferocious resistance but a house-to-house search has started on the outskirts of Shin Warsak,” the official said.
Sixteen soldiers and 24 suspected militants, including some foreigners, were killed on Tuesday, the first day of fighting.
“We are closing in on them. Their defence seems to be dying down,” said senior security official Brigadier Mehmood Shah.
“Either they’ve run out of ammunition or they want to surprise us when we get closer,” he said. Shah denied that 15 more Pakistani soldiers had been killed, saying the government side had suffered no losses.
US-led troops are also striking from the Afghan side in what the Pentagon is calling a “hammer and anvil” operation.
Brigadier Shah also denied financial market rumours today that Osama bin Laden had been captured on their territory. “There is no truth in this report,” he added.