Monday, March 22, 2004

"Temporary cease-fire"

A "temporary cease-fire" has been issued between the Pakistani military and the surrounded Al-Qaeda "fighters."

Pakistani forces hunting hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda fighters near the Afghan border called a temporary cease-fire Sunday as the government gave tribal leaders a chance to persuade the militants to surrender.

Officials said the government granted 25 tribal elders safe passage into the battle zone in an effort to negotiate a peace deal with local tribesman sheltering the militants.

In calling the cease-fire, the government also demanded that local tribesmen unconditionally release 16 Pakistani troops and officials they have detained, hand over all wanted suspects and provide assurances that they will not shelter any suspects in the future.

U.S. and Pakistani officials said last week that the intense resistance suggested that the suspected militants were protecting a "high-value" target, possibly Ayman Zawahiri, the top deputy of Osama bin Laden in the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

But Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, told CNN on Sunday, "Who the particular high-value target might be, one or more, we don't have any clue."

The fighting has raged near the town of Wana, in the South Waziristan region, since Tuesday. Senior officials here said the government ordered the military to stop firing artillery Sunday after the militants' resistance dropped sharply.

"The troops have silenced their artillery guns, and helicopter gunships were hovering over the designated zone but did not fire rockets," retired army Brig. Mahmood Shah, who is responsible for security in the semiautonomous tribal belt of northwest Pakistan, told reporters in Peshawar on Sunday.

But both sides continued to fire lighter weapons during intermittent clashes in several villages in an area cordoned off by several thousand Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary troops, witnesses said by telephone.

Pakistani soldiers killed two Chechen fighters as they tried to break through the ring, Shah said. He did not provide exact casualty figures, but several dozen civilians, government troops and militants have been reported killed in the last week.

Government forces continued house-to-house searches and had cleared 152 houses by Sunday. Officials said the search operation might take a month and that security forces had demolished houses used to shelter suspected militants.

Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, who is leading the offensive in the tribal areas as commander of the Pakistani army's 11th Corps, told a local TV channel that his forces would "teach a lesson" to the Yargulkhel tribe, which is accused of harboring foreign militants.

Meanwhile, some of the Al-Qaeda might have escaped through a tunnel:

Top al-Qaida terrorists may have escaped a siege by thousands of Pakistani soldiers through several secret tunnels leading from mud fortresses to a dry mountain stream near the border with Afghanistan, a security chief said Monday.

The longest tunnel found so far was more than 1 mile long and led from the homes of two local men - Nek Mohammed and Sharif Khan - to a stream near the frontier, said Brig. Mahmood Shah, head of security for Pakistan's tribal regions.

"There is a possibility that the tunnel may have been used at the start of the operation," Shah told journalists in Peshawar, the provincial capital. He said the tunnels began at the homes in the village of Kaloosha and led in the direction of a mountain range that straddles the border.

Three senior officials have told AP that they believe al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri may have been at the site, though the government has repeatedly said it does not know who is inside. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Thursday that a "high-value" target was likely involved.

The militants may have used the tunnel to escape during the disastrous first day of the operation on Mar. 16, when at least 15 soldiers were killed in fierce fighting. Still, Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, the commander of the operation, said over the weekend that authorities believe an important terrorist remains inside, based on the level of resistance of the holdouts.


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