Suspected al-Qaida fugitives seized in wake of border shootout

Friday, June 28, 2002

Associated Press WriterISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- Pakistani troops seized at least 16 suspected al-Qaida fugitives Friday believed to have been involved in a shootout that killed 10 Pakistani soldiers this week, government officials said.

The arrests came amid an intensive search in tribal areas of western Pakistan that began Wednesday after more than 40 suspected al-Qaida fighters opened fire on Pakistani soldiers.

The Pakistani dead included a captain and a major, and a number of other soldiers were wounded in the confrontation Wednesday near the town of Wana in the North West Frontier Province.

Two suspected al-Qaida fighters were killed and one, a 15-year-old boy, was captured. The rest of the fighters fled under cover of darkness.

The men arrested Friday included eight Chechens, two Sudanese, two Nigerians and four Afghans, said Pakistani intelligence and interior ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

They said the detainees were taken to an interrogation center as hundreds of soldiers continued combing the mountainous countryside in the Waziristan tribal area.

More than 600 soldiers backed by helicopters have been searching the area. Troops began house-to-house searches in the region Thursday and set up roadblocks to check the identification of people leaving and entering the Wana area.

Residents said the army also deployed civilian women in the conservative Muslim area to search the belongings of other women.

Wednesday's battle broke out before dawn when soldiers approached a suspected al-Qaida hide-out near Wana, about 190 miles west of Islamabad, an area largely outside the control of the Pakistani government.

More than 40 fighters attacked them with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and hand grenades, the army said.

The army said the fighters were likely Chechen members of al-Qaida who fled to the region after the U.S. military's Operation Anaconda in southeastern Afghanistan in March. The nationality of the captured teenager was not released.

The Pakistani casualties were the first since President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, deployed troops to the area that borders the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Paktika last year to intercept al-Qaida and Taliban members fleeing U.S. attacks.

The United States put its forces in neighboring Afghanistan on alert to help if Pakistan asked, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday. So far there has been no request from Pakistan.

During recent weeks, local government buildings and Pakistani troops have come under sporadic rocket and machine-gun fire from unknown attackers in the area.

U.S. officials estimate up to 1,000 al-Qaida fighters still operate in small groups on both sides of the mountainous border.

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