Many Al Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas in Waziristan are fleeing their village hideouts and heading up into the mountains along the Afghan border, according to tribal sources in the area.
Shunning their conspicuous Land Cruisers, the militants are camouflaging their movements by journeying with local woodcutters and shepherds, who head into the mountains to earn their livelihood.
Officials here say the fighters are being squeezed by the government's recent crackdown in the tribal region. Pakistan has deployed 12,000 military and paramilitary soldiers, and demanded help from tribal leaders, to round up Al Qaeda and Taliban elements.
"Our strategy against foreign terrorists is working very well," says Rehmatullah Wazir, a senior government official in South Waziristan. "They feel unsafe here. They are feeling the pressure, and we are coming down hard on their local supporters as well."
US forces in Afghanistan, meanwhile, have stepped up their hunt on the other side of the border, announcing over the weekend a new operation named Mountain Storm. US military officials have said they are coordinating their efforts with the Pakistanis to rid the region of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
"It seems a part of the strategy of Pakistan and US-allied forces to herd them onto the mountains [for] a final battle there," says Sailab Mehsud, a writer and sociologist of South Waziristan. "But the battle will be tough, as the terrain of some of the mountains is like that of Tora Bora [in Afghanistan]. It has natural caves. Al Qaeda men seem to be well-equipped and prepared, and know the escape routes. Trapping them will be a difficult task for the US and Pakistan forces."
Tribal sources estimate that around 600 Al Qaeda guerrillas - mostly Arabs, Chechens, and Uzbeks - remain in and around South Waziristan. While not all of these wanted militants have left the villages, tribal sources believe that many have converged in the forest-covered, snow-swept mountain regions of Shikai, Bush, and Khamran.
"Al Qaeda are now avoiding traveling in Land Cruisers because they think they will either be spotted by American satellite or killed by chasing Pakistani forces," says local tribesman Farid Khan. He says Al Qaeda fighters are paying local woodcutters and shepherds, who are "known as the best guides," $85 to $170 each for the trip into the mountains.
"These poor people sympathized with them, and believe saving mujahideen from Americans is a service to Islam," says Mr. Khan.
Some of the foreign fighters are familiar to the local residents. The region was used as a "launching pad" into Afghanistan for thousands of anti-Soviet mujahideen, trained and funded by Pakistani and American intelligence agencies. After the Soviet defeat, many Islamic militants, particularly Uzbeks and Chechens, preferred to settle down in Pakistan's tribal belt.
"They look like Waziristanis now. They wear traditional dress, speak fluent Pashto, and follow our traditions," says tribesman Nasir Khan.
After the Sept. 11 attacks and the ouster of the Taliban by the US forces, the ideological bonding between locals and Al Qaeda fighters turned into a relationship.
"When Afghanistan was bombed, mujahideen of Al Qaeda married their daughters to the sons of tribesmen. Dozens of the weddings were arranged in emergency as Al Qaeda men were wary of their uncertain future," he says.
Pakistani authorities are trying to cut off Al Qaeda's local support and supply line by involving tribal elders.
Under pressure to deliver, tribal chiefs have formed a force of 600 armed tribesmen to catch militants and hand over the five most wanted local tribesmen, known as "Men of Al Qaeda."
The clans of the Zakikhel tribe, which formed the tribal posse, will be forced to pay a fine of $870 each day and face house demolitions if they fail to apprehend "foreign terrorists."
This penalty, which began Monday, will be in place for the next five days. As of Monday, the tribal force has caught no one; officials monitoring their performance say that if they fail, Pakistani forces will launch their own operation at "anytime."
"If we support Al Qaeda then our houses are demolished and if we side with the government then we are killed by Al Qaeda and their men," says Malik Behram Khan, an enraged tribal elder.
Since last year, Pakistani forces have launched a number of operations within the tribal belt that have dealt blows to Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts.
On Oct. 2, hundreds of Pakistani commandos and troops attacked a guerrilla hideout, killing eight Al Qaeda men and capturing 18. Pakistan identified two of the dead as Hasan Masoom, a top leader of a Muslim terrorist movement in China, and Egyptian-born Canadian national, Ahmed Said Khadr, a top Al Qaeda financier.
In January, authorities gave tribal elders a list of more than 100 wanted tribesmen. Around 60 of them were handed over, but the elders failed to surrender the most wanted men suspected of providing shelter to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
During a Feb. 24 raid in South Waziristan, Pakistani forces captured at least 20 people, including some foreign women, and recovered ammunition and passports of suspected Al Qaeda fighters.
"This is part of our overall strategy to pressure these tribesmen into handing over suspects and expelling foreign terrorists," says Azam Khan, a top government official in South Waziristan.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf threw his weight behind the initiative Monday, meeting with over 500 tribal elders in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar, seeking their cooperation in the continuing hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives.
Many tribesmen say they feel "a big and decisive" operation is in the offing and believe that Al Qaeda guerrillas would prefer to die rather than surrender to the US and Pakistan forces.
"They have pledged to blow themselves up rather than surrender. I met a local [Al Qaeda] wanted man in recent days to persuade him to surrender but he said, 'We wish to go to Paradise and not to Guantánamo,' " says a tribal elder. "If the days belong to them then the nights are for us to strike," the tribal elder quoted the wanted man as saying.