Pakistan claims killing of al-Qa'ida chief

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The Pakistani army claimed yesterday that a spy chief of al-Qa'ida was killed in the military operation to flush out Islamic militants from the Afghan border that ended at the weekend with more than 100 dead.

The Pakistani army claimed yesterday that a spy chief of al-Qa'ida was killed in the military operation to flush out Islamic militants from the Afghan border that ended at the weekend with more than 100 dead.

Major General Shaukat Sultan, a military spokesman, said that Pakistani troops had killed 63 militants, including the intelligence chief whom he identified as "Mr Abdullah". He added that Tahir Yuldashev, the Uzbek al-Qa'ida leader, was on the run. Mr Yuldashev was identified as the 10th most senior member of al-Qa'ida.

Pakistani authorities in Islamabad have declared - after 12 days of intermittent fighting, 46 soldiers dead, 82 houses destroyed and rumours of US or British special forces present in the area - that the main aim of the operation has been achieved: clearing the militants from 40 square miles of where the militants were based.

But questions about the success of the operation remain, as the army retreats, having only shifted the base of the fighters a few miles east or north, while provoking anger and resentment among the local population. The tribesmen and their families had to seek shelter in Wana and other villages, as thousands of Pakistani forces battled hundreds of foreign and local militants.

President Pervez Musharraf raised the stakes on 18 March - with Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, due in Islamabad - that a high-profile al-Qa'ida target had been surrounded in his hideaway. That report set off expectations the high-profile target was Osama bin Laden's number two: Ayman al-Zawahiri. But, two days later, such reports were being downplayed.

Brigadier Mehmud Shah, the Secretary of the federally administered tribal areas, said: "Al-Zawahiri was in the area until approximately two months ago; that's what we know at the moment and obviously this sort of intelligence is of no use these days. He could be further north right now; we lost track."

Mr Shah insisted Zawahiri did not escape from the operations area and, if someone did, it was not him.

It seems probable that the high-profile target could have been Mr Yuldashev, a commander of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), associated with the neo-Taliban militias.

The Pakistani army confirmed that the targets are Nek Muhammad and Noor Islam, elders of the Yargulkhel clan, who allegedly harboured Zawahiri until he left the region. But Malik Hazrat Ali Ashrafkhel, an elder of the Zalikhel jirga - comprising the Yargulkhel clan - denied the presence of the two in the area. He said: "If the army has proof of the presence of foreigners, just show us the corpses or the prisoners. The fighters are refugees from Kandahar and Paktia who settled here 35 years ago. They married here, they have families; how can they leave with a week's notice?"

The siege in the remote hillside region consisted of sealing off the area in Azam Warsak and Kalosha, not far from Wana, where the militants were hiding. They were a mixed group of Pathans and foreigners, certainly involved with the Taliban regime and probably with al-Qa'ida or one of its Central Asiatic offshoots: mainly the IMU and Chechen militants.

Mr Shah said: "They are very difficult to differentiate from the locals; many have been living here since more than a decade and are trying to hide their origin. There are Uzbeks and Chechens but no Arabs have been confirmed to be there."

The Chechens in the area are led by Commander Daniyar, who is almost certainly involved in the resistance.

The aim of the military operation could have been to either try to disperse the fighters or drive them across the border into Afghanistan, where US forces are active. But the decision to cause trouble in the autonomous region was a no-win situation for Mr Musharraf. If he acted of his own accord, then the operation is only at an early stage. The alternative possibility is that Mr Musharraf could not deny help to the US forces operating across the border in Paktika.

Now that the area has been cleared, 600 well-trained fighters are regrouping in the north or east, Mr Shah said, and 163 fighters are being interrogated by the Pakistani army. But the Pathan tribes - now in a strategic position in the war on terror - have guarded the 25,000-mile long border for centuries: there is no question of them co-operating with the Americans, and the Pakistani army can only hope for them to observe a neutral position.

* At least 19 people were killed in Uzbekistan in "terrorist" actions to split the US-led anti-terror coalition, officials said yesterday. Twenty-six people were wounded.