Tuesday, March 23, 2004


It becoming increasingly clear that some Al-Qaeda have escaped the ongoing stand-off with Pakistani troops via underground tunnels:

Amid suspicions that some militants along the Afghan border had escaped a Pakistani military cordon through a secret tunnel, hit-and-run attackers in a nearby area ambushed an army convoy Monday.

Assailants firing rocket-propelled grenades damaged six military vehicles, including an oil tanker, along a highway near the town of Wana, according to witnesses interviewed by telephone. It was unclear whether Pakistani forces suffered casualties, the witnesses added, but some suggested at least 12 soldiers died in the afternoon ambush.

The attack is likely to test the patience of the Pakistani army, which announced Sunday it would hold fire to give tribal elders another chance to talk as many as 500 suspected militants in the region into surrendering. A senior commander said Monday that the lull in the fighting was not a formal cease-fire and that the offensive could resume at any time.

Fierce fighting erupted last Tuesday near Wana as security forces searched for suspected Al Qaeda fighters believed to be hiding in the semiautonomous South Waziristan region near the Afghan border.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said Thursday that the militants' fierce resistance indicated they might be defending a "high-value target," such as senior Al Qaeda leaders. But Pakistani officials have since backed away from suggestions that Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, was among the militants surrounded by a military cordon.

Retired army Brig. Mahmood Shah, chief of security for northwest Pakistan's tribal region, said Monday that security forces had discovered a tunnel more than a mile long in the cordoned-off zone. It connected the mud-brick houses of the two most wanted tribesmen, Mohammed Sharif and Maulvi Nek Mohammed, Shah told reporters in Peshawar.

"There is a possibility that the tunnel may have been used before the [cordon] operation," he said, adding that the tunnels begin at the homes in the village of Kaloosha and continue toward a mountain range that straddles the Afghan border.


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