| A child sleeps in a cradle amongst rubble in Kalosha near Wana. (Reuters)
Wana, March 29 (Reuters): Pakistani troops killed a spy chief in Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network in a 12-day sweep on its desolate Afghan frontier, an army official said today, vowing to step up the hunt for Islamic militants.
The army said it would flush foreign fighters from its mountainous tribal territories bordering eastern Afghanistan after a bloody offensive in South Waziristan district ended yesterday with more than 100 people killed. “The casualties were relatively high but a small cost for the lofty cause of elimination of terrorism from Pakistan society,” military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan said.
He said troops had killed 63 militants, including an al Qaida intelligence chief whom he identified only as “Mr Abdullah”. He would not provide further details such as the man’s nationality, full name or how and when he was killed. “He was killed in this operation,” he said.
US forces are hunting on the other side of the border in a pincer operation. Militants linked to al Qaida are widely believed to be behind bomb blasts in Madrid this month that killed 190.
Sultan said a wounded senior Uzbek al Qaida leader, Tahir Yuldashev, was on the run. Yuldashev was the 10th most senior member of al Qaida and was now hiding somewhere along the Afghan border, he added.
The military claimed victory after securing the release yesterday of 12 paramilitary troops taken hostage when the fighting began, but about 50 soldiers were killed and an unknown number of fighters escaped, possibly through a labyrinth of tunnels.
The raid, Pakistan’s biggest on its semi-autonomous South Waziristan tribal territory, netted 163 militants, including 73 foreigners, Sultan said. More than a dozen civilians are believed dead.
About 50,000 army troops have been deployed in Pakistan’s rugged Afghan frontier to clear foreign militants. “There are no other tribal communities that we know of sheltering and harbouring militants. But if there are, we will find out,” said Sultan.
But in the latest of a series of small attacks elsewhere on the border, two rockets were fired at a paramilitary camp in North Waziristan late yesterday, causing some damage but no injuries, residents in the area said.
Capturing Yuldashev would be a prize for President Pervez Musharraf, accused by conservative Islamic politicians of pandering to US President George W. Bush at the expense of Pakistani Muslims in the South Waziristan offensive. Musharraf says al Qaida militants with links to the tribal area were behind two attempts on his life in December.
Yuldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was accused of a series of bomb deadly blasts in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in 1999 and is rumoured to have led resistance to US forces during fighting in Afghanistan in the spring of 2002.
As convoys of troops withdrew from the area around the militant hideout to a nearby base near South Waziristan’s capital of Wana, families returned on wagons and tractor-trolleys to the site of the fighting, many finding their homes destroyed.
“My family has nothing to do with any group or militants, but my house is totally destroyed. We are poor people. They have ruined us,” said one, from Serwakai, near Wana. Some schools were hit and a number of water wells damaged, they added.
Military bulldozers had flattened nearly all the mud-walled fortress-like homes where Pashtun tribesmen had given refuge to al Qaida and foreign fighters believed to include Uzbeks, Arabs and Chechens, the residents said. Tribal elders in the Afghan border district of Zhob, about 60 km south of Wana, met a Pakistani general and agreed to fight if al Qaida-linked militants reach their area.
The fighting began when paramilitary forces hunting al Qaida and other militants ran into a hail of bullets on March 16, suggesting tribesmen were helping to protect a “high-value target”, perhaps bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahri. Pakistan, while supporting the US war on terror, had come under pressure for not doing enough to flush out militants.