Pakistani army raids suspected al-Qaida hideout
ANGORE ADDA, Pakistan -- Pakistani soldiers swooped down on an al-Qaida mountain hideout in the country's forbidding tribal region Thursday, killing 12 suspected terrorists and capturing 18 others in the military's largest-ever offensive against Osama bin Laden's network.
It was not clear whether any senior al-Qaida figures were among the dead or captured, who all appeared to be foreigners, army officials said. The area in Pakistan's fiercely auto-nomous Waziristan region has long been considered a likely hiding place for bin Laden, a Saudi exile, and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian.
A battle was ongoing late Thursday, and authorities believed several dozen al-Qaida fugitives were still in the area, said Maj. Gen. Ameer Faisal, the commander of the operation.
"The operation will continue until they are captured or killed," he said.
Six hours after the 5:30 a.m. raid, Cobra attack helicopters circled over the site of the fighting, some firing machine guns. At least 200 soldiers were present.
An Associated Press journalist taken to the scene by the military saw four bodies, their faces covered with light-colored cloth. The bodies were lying in the open under small trees on a craggy mountain ridge, near an area on the same mountain that the army said the al-Qaida fighters used as a hideout.
Faisal said eight other suspected al-Qaida fighters were lying in an area about 100 yards away that was too dangerous to enter. Most of the dead appeared to have Central Asian features, Faisal said.
Ten blindfolded al-Qaida suspects were led away with their hands tied behind their backs. The military said 18 suspects were detained in all.
At least two Pakistani soldiers were killed and two wounded in the fighting, some when the trapped suspects lobbed grenades at them as the soldiers approached their mountain hideout.
In the afternoon, gunfire could be heard coming from a group of mud-walled compounds where Faisal said "dozens" of al-Qaida suspects had taken refuge after fleeing the hideout.
"Our preference is to capture them. ... We are carefully handling this operation because the al-Qaida men are hiding at the homes of local people," he said. "We are trying to flush out these al-Qaida people. Whenever we ask them to surrender, they start returning fire."
Soldiers seized hand grenades, AK-47 assault rifles, anti-tank mines, audio cassettes and other documents during the operation.
Thursday's raid came on the day U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca had been due in Pakistan for talks on the war on terrorism. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry announced the visit was postponed for "scheduling reasons."
Several high-profile Pakistani operations against al-Qaida have taken place at the same time as major international diplomatic events, but Pakistani officials have insisted the timing has been purely coincidental.
Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali is now in the United States to meet with senior U.S. officials, and President Gen. Pervez Musharraf recently returned from the United States.
It was the first time the army allowed journalists to witness an ongoing operation against al-Qaida suspects. The journalists were taken away from the area with the battle still raging.
The Pakistani army said the fighting was sparked by intelligence received in recent days that al-Qaida operatives had sneaked across the border from Afghanistan.
Taliban fighters are also believed to use the Waziristan region as a staging ground to launch attacks inside Afghanistan to destabilize the government of President Hamid Karzai.
On Monday, a U.S. soldier was killed in a gunbattle with anti-coalition forces near a base at Shkin, a town in Afghanistan's Paktika province, just across the border from South Waziristan.
Thursday's raid was organized from a base camp at Angore Adda, just a half- mile from the fighting, and the last Pakistani town before the border with Afghanistan.
"Upon receipt of credible intelligence about the presence of al-Qaida elements in a hideout in South Waziristan agency, close to the Pakistan-Afghan border, Pakistan's army acted swiftly and launched an operation," the army said in a statement.
The raid was the third in the Waziristan area in about a year and a half, but by far the largest.
Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the army spokesman, said it was the military's largest-ever offensive against al-Qaida and the largest army operation to date in the tribal areas.
Last month, Pakistani forces converged on Bannu, a town on the edge of the tribal belt, but no arrests were made. Assailants fired three rockets at the troops from inside the tribal area, a sign of the deep displeasure locals feel at the army presence.
In June 2002, 10 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a gunbattle with al-Qaida suspects in Azam Warsak, also in South Waziristan. Two al-Qaida suspects also died in that fighting, one was captured and dozens escaped. Most of the al-Qaida suspects were believed to be Chechens.
Pakistan says it has arrested at least 450 al-Qaida suspects and turned them over to the United States.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, al-Qaida's alleged number three, was captured March 1 near the capital, and suspected Sept. 11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh was captured in the southern city of Karachi exactly one year after the attacks. Another top al-Qaida operative, Abu Zubaydah, was captured in March 2002.