Sat, Mar 20, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Battle rages over al-Qaeda boss

FIERCE RESISTANCE Thousands of Pakistani troops fought gunmen with suspected ties to al-Qaeda after an ambush on Tuesday that decimated a unit of paramilitaries


Several thousand Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships yesterday fought fierce clashes with heavily armed gunmen believed to have been protecting a top al-Qaeda leader close to the Afghan border.

Officials said al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri may have narrowly escaped the South Waziristan tribal village during heavy clashes three days ago which left at least 15 soldiers and 24 militants dead.

Up to 100 militants were still putting up fierce resistance yesterday, firing mortars and small arms at thousands of army and paramilitary troops who were raiding tribesmen's homes in five villages near the district capital Wana within an area around 6km2 in size.

"The militants appear to be well dug in in mud fortresses. They appear to be determined to fight till the end," spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan said.

Pakistani officials said the intense fighting since Tuesday indicated the militants were protecting an al-Qaeda leader and there was a "strong possibility" it was Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man and personal doctor.

But a senior security official said yesterday that he could have escaped on Tuesday, and a Taliban spokesman claimed both Zawahiri and bin Laden were safe in Afghanistan.

"He may have slipped the net," the official said.

The frenzied speculation was triggered by the sighting of a foreigner being whisked away at high speed in a bullet-proof vehicle on Tuesday when paramilitaries went searching for tribesmen wanted for sheltering al-Qaeda fugitives.

The landcruiser burst suddenly out of a tribal compound, two other landcruisers emerged to protect it, and scores of fighters appeared from several directions, hurling grenades and firing at the paramilitaries.

The unit of 50 troops was "virtually wiped out," the official said.

Fifteen were killed, 22 were injured and another 13 were missing.

"The way he was whisked away, the way fighters sprang from nowhere, that made us believe that if it was not bin Laden, and we're sure it was not, that it was his deputy," the official said. "We can't think of another al-Qaeda leader who could have such high protocol and such sophisticated tight defense."

The Pakistani operation in the rugged autonomous tribal region of South Waziristan, some 300km west of Islamabad coincides with similar activity by US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan in a major new offensive to catch bin Laden and other al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

The US House of Representatives on Thursday doubled the reward for bin Laden's capture to US$50 million. A US$25-million reward remains on the head of Zawahiri, considered the brains of al-Qaeda and a key planner of the Sept, 11, 2001, attacks on the US.

The US military said it had trained intense surveillance on the Waziristan area, including Predator drones.

President Pervez Musharraf said late Thursday that his forces believed they had a "high value target" surrounded.

"We feel that there may be a high-value target. I can't say who," said Musharraf, who on Thursday held talks in Islamabad with US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Two Pakistani government officials said it was believed that the militants had beens protecting Zawahiri, who along with bin Laden escaped the dragnet of US forces after the October 2001 war in Afghanistan.

"This is a strong possibility," said one official.

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