AL-QAIDA'S NO. 2 LEADER
Pakistani intelligence reports say the "high value" target in fortess-like buildings is Ayman al-Zawahri
By Paul Haven ~ The Associated Press
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistani forces believe they have cornered and perhaps wounded Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, in a major battle near the Afghan border, an area where many believe the world's most wanted terrorist has been hiding, three senior Pakistani officials said Thursday.
Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said a "high value" target was believed trapped in South Waziristan, a semi-autonamous tribal belt that has resisted outside intervention for centuries.
Hundreds of troops and paramilitary rangers pounded several fortress-like mud-brick compounds with artillery and fired on them from helicopter gunships, as entrenched suspects fought back hard. An intelligence official said "dozens" were killed Thursday.
At least 41 people -- 15 soldiers and 26 suspected militants -- were killed earlier this week in fighting in the area.
The officials said that intelligence indicated the forces had surrounded the Egyptian-born al-Zawahri in an operation that began Tuesday, the first major break in the world's most intense manhunt in more than a year.
The region has long been considered the most likely hiding place for the top two al-Qaida leaders -- but there was no indication bin Laden was with al-Zawahri. However, the two have traveled together in the past, and bin Laden and al-Zawahri appeared jointly in video tapes released shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The 52-year-old former Egyptian surgeon is believed to be the brains behind the terror network, with bin Laden serving more as spiritual leader and financial backer.
The United States has offered a $25 million reward for information leading to al-Zawahri's capture.
"We have been receiving intelligence and information from our agents who are working in the tribal areas that al-Zawahri could be among the people hiding there," a Pakistani military official said. "All of our efforts are to capture him."
An intelligence official and a senior politician in Musharraf's government both confirmed the account. All spoke on condition of anonymity.
The intelligence official said information was also coming from some of the 18 suspects captured during Thursday's operation. Some said during interrogation that al-Zawahri was wounded in the raid, the official said. Officials said helicopter gunships and artillery would continue attacking at dawn today.
Musharraf told CNN that he'd spoken with the commander of Pakistani troops in the region. He said the commander reported "fierce resistance" from a group of fighters entrenched in fortress-like buildings, and that there were indications a senior figure was surrounded.
"He's reasonably sure there's a high-value target there," Musharraf said. "They are not coming out in spite of the fact that we pounded them with artillery."
The news came the same day as Secretary of State Colin Powell announced in the capital, Islamabad, that Washington was bestowing the status of "major non-NATO ally" on Pakistan, and praised the country for its help in the war on terror.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN she could not confirm the reports.
But, she said, if al-Zawahri were captured, "it would be of course a major step forward in the war on terrorism, because he's obviously an extremely important figure. But I think we have to be careful not to assume that getting one al-Qaida leader is going to break up the organization."