Pakistan joins war against Al Qaeda in its tribal areas

Pakistani troops are hunting for some 40 Al Qaeda fighters who escaped after a battle earlier this week.

The nocturnal raid this week by Pakistani troops – with FBI assistance – on an Al Qaeda hide-out was the first cooperative effort of this kind on Pakistani soil.

According to sources in Islamabad, five FBI agents worked alongside nearly 50 Pakistani Army soldiers during the operation near the Afghan border. But the US agents were not involved in the two-hour firefight.

This marks the first major combat operation inside Pakistan's autonomous tribal areas, and underscores the shift in the war on Al Qaeda from Afghanistan to Pakistan. In May, US special forces and Pakistani troops searched a madrassah in Northern Waziristan.

This latest ongoing operation is also an acknowledgment by Islamabad, say analysts, that Osama bin Laden's followers are regrouping in its territory – and that President Pervez Musharraf's government is willing to cooperate fully with US efforts.

"The incident in South Waziristan is a grim reminder that Al Qaeda is very much present in Pakistan and that it is able to find shelters in the tribal areas," says Afzal Niazi, a political analyst in Islamabad. "Flushing out the fugitives from their hideouts in a tribal region carries risk of trouble with locals, but it is a risk the authorities have got to take."

As such, it's unlikely to be the last Pakistani operation in the tribal areas. US military officials estimate that up to 1,000 Al Qaeda fighters have fled into the region from Afghanistan.

The clash Tuesday began around midnight in South Waziristan, a mountainous province inhabited by fiercely independent and deeply religious ethnic Pashtun tribesmen to whom bin Laden and the Taliban are considered heroes of Islam.

According to information gathered from Pakistani security and intelligence sources, the operation involved a strike force of three Pakistani units with 16 soldiers in each. It was initiated after the FBI intercepted communications in mid-May indicating the presence of Al Qaeda members in the area.

For Pakistani troops, the attack quickly turned chaotic. The fortress-like Al Qaeda compound is located in Azam Warsak, in a densely populated residential area some 20 miles from the Afghan border. For that reason, Pakistani military sources say the use of tanks or jet bombers would have produced too many civilian casualties.

As the troops entered the gates of the compound, they were hit by machine-gun fire and grenades. For two hours the battle raged, leaving 10 Pakistani soldiers dead, including a major and a captain.

When the fight was over, Pakistani troops found two dead Al Qaeda fighters lying beside their machine guns. They were identified as Chechens from the papers recovered from their pockets.

There was no trace of some 40 others who were believed to have been hiding in the house along with some women and children.

"They all managed to slip away in the darkness, while the two Chechens fought with machine guns," says a military source in the area.

A Pakistan Army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, says two concerns weighed on the minds of the personnel during the operation.

"There were some women and children inside the building, and there were other houses around it, and because of the concerns the law enforcement personnel had to proceed with care and avoid use of lethal force," he says.

Sources in South Waziristan say troop reinforcements arrived Thursday in Wana, the main town in the area, to beef up the search for the escaped fighters, who are believed to include Chechens and Arabs.

Authorities have summoned tribal chieftains from the area to Wana to tell them to cooperate in the operation or risk punitive action, the sources say. Authorities reminded tribal chiefs that under a 1901 law governing the semiautonomous tribal areas, it is their responsibility to ensure no unlawful activity takes place.

Yesterday, troops were conducting house-to-house searches, and the entire area was under curfew. Soldiers were making forays into the mountains to scan cave hideouts, sources there say.

Witnesses say some 20 tribesmen have been taken into custody, and the authorities have demolished several houses, a form of reprisal against suspected criminals under the Frontier Crimes Regulations, a harsh law inherited from British colonial rule.

The tribal territory is widely believed to be a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and Taliban cadres fleeing the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan, and speculation continues that bin Laden himself may be hiding somewhere in the region with local support.

Pakistani police say Al Qaeda is in league with several banned extremist and militant groups in the country, and this alliance may be behind the two recent terrorist bombings in the southern port city of Karachi, one outside the US Consulate.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan yesterday, about 100 US soldiers, accompanied by 50 Afghan fighters, were scouring the rugged mountains in an area where a former Taliban official says bin Laden maintained several hide-outs.

The operation is under way in Kunar Province, north of Jalalabad along the Pakistan border, Afghan and US officials say. First word of the operation came Tuesday, when US officials at Bagram Air Base said American forces came under mortar fire in Kunar but suffered no casualties.

"The Americans are here in Kunar ... but I can't say for sure whether there are Al Qaeda here," a local government spokesman, Saeed Mohammed Safi, told the Associated Press. "We have a lot of mountains and gorges and forests where [Al Qaeda] can hide. But I haven't seen any," he said Wednesday.

In Washington, US officials said that important al-Qaida or Taliban figures may be hiding in the area.

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