Pakistan declares ceasefire with al-Qa'ida fighters as criticism of offensive mounts

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Pakistan's army declared a ceasefire in South Waziristan yesterday to allow tribal elders time to negotiate the surrender of the 400 al-Qa'ida fighters said to be hiding in the autonomous territories bordering eastern Afghanistan.

The soldiers failed to find any trace of the Egyptian radical Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, who was presumed to be the "high-value target" that Pakistani officials say is still within their grasp.

Although the fierce fighting in the area had stopped yesterday, the initial ferocity of resistance led Pakistani authorities to believe that tribesmen must be shielding someone very important. More than 25 militants were killed in days of pitched battles.

On Tuesday, an informant had tipped off the army about militants hiding in a fortified farmhouse in Kolosha village. Pakistani troops were ambushed by al-Qa'ida on the way to the village, and the "high-value target" escaped in a black four-wheel-drive vehicle, a source inside Waziristan said.

Authorities in Pakistan and Afghanistan now suggest that a powerful Central Asian leader, Tohir Yuldash, is the focus of the current battles. Neither Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, nor Zawahri, appear to be in the vicinity.

Scores of foreign fighters were taken prisoner and are undergoing joint interrogation by the Americans and the Pakistanis in Peshawar. At least 14 Pakistani soldiers were being held by militants inside the tribal territory.

Thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes. Yesterday, at the hospital in Wana, the main town in the region, about three miles from the fighting, some blamed the army for civilian casualties. About two dozen residents were killed on Saturday when five vehicles were fired upon, said local government officials and intelligence officials.

Major-General Shaukat Sultan said the vehicles were attacked because they were trying to escape a military cordon around the target area. He said one bus, in which at least seven people were killed, was hit by a stray rocket fired by militants ­ although local people said it was hit by gunfire and rockets from a Pakistani helicopter.

Zain Ullah, a tribesman, said 12 of his relatives, including five women, died in the bus attack and three of his dead cousin's children were injured.

President Pervez Musharraf's opposition, the conservative religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, warned that a military presence in the zone controlled by fiercely independent tribes might stoke old resentments and could lead to a civil war for an independent Pashtunistan. Tribal elders meeting yesterday had requested the ceasefire to collect their dead.

President Musharraf, who is about to receive a visit from Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, acknowledged in public for the first time last week that hundreds of foreign militants "from different countries" were based in the lawless tribal zone. He pledged to drive them out if they refused to surrender. The heavily armed militants are believed to include Uzbeks, Chechens, Tajiks, Afghans, Uighars from China, and local Pashtun clansmen.

Yuldash, the founder of the fundamentalist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, joined forces with Bin Laden against the Northern Alliance, but after the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001 he sought sanctuary with Pashtun tribes in the rugged buffer zone where American forces are prohibited, and is believed to have spent the past two years in the region. Pakistani troops were deployed there for the first time last year, after US pressure.