Pakistan launches offensive against al-Qa'ida

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The Independent Online

Pakistan launched its largest-ever military offensive against al-Qa'ida and other militants in a rugged tribal region bordering Afghanistan today, killing at least 12 suspects and arresting 10 more.

An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw four bodies and Major General Ameer Faisal, the commander of the operation, said eight others were lying in an area about 100 yards away that was too dangerous to enter.

Ten al-Qa'ida suspects, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, were led away from the area.

General Faisal said the majority of those killed and captured in the operation in South Waziristan appeared to be foreigners. It was not immediately clear if any top-ranking al-Qa'ida operatives were among them.

Osama bin Laden and his alleged number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, are believed to be hiding somewhere along the long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Taliban fighters are also believed to use the area as a staging ground to launch attacks inside Afghanistan. On Monday, an American soldier was killed in a gun battle with anti-coalition forces near a base at Shkin, a town in Afghanistan's Paktika province, just across the border from South Waziristan. The base and several others along the border come under frequent attack.

At least two Pakistani troops were wounded in today's operation, General Faisal said, and the battle was continuing. Some 200 Pakistani troops reportedly took part, and General Shaukat Sultan, an army spokesman, said it was the army's largest-ever offensive against al-Qa'ida, and the largest army operation to date in the fiercely autonomous tribal areas.

The operation came on the same day that Pakistan announced that two top US envoys had postponed a visit to Islamabad for "scheduling reasons."

The fighting began in South Waziristan shortly after early morning prayers, Faisal said. He said the two injured soldiers were hurt when the suspects lobbed grenades at them as they first approached the hideout.

At least nine hours later, gunfire could be heard coming from a group of compounds where Faisal said other al-Qa'ida suspects had taken refuge. At least four Pakistani helicopters circled the area.

"Al-Qa'ida people have taken refuge in these five big compounds. We do not know how many people are hiding there," General Faisal told the AP. He said hand grenades, AK-47 assault rifles, anti-tank mines, audio cassettes and other documents were seized during the operation.

Army helicopters and soldiers were organizing the operation from a base camp at Angore Adda, just a kilometer (half mile) from the fighting, and the last Pakistani town before the border with Afghanistan. The army brought several journalists to the camp by helicopter to observe the operation, then took them to the fighting area.

It was the first time the army has allowed journalists to witness an operation against al-Qa'ida suspects. The journalists were taken away from the fighting area with the battle still raging.

The troops moved in after receiving word that al-Qa'ida operatives had sneaked into the area from Afghanistan, the army said in a statement.

The areas of North and South Waziristan, both in Pakistan's ultra-conservative North West Frontier Province, are home to Pashtun tribesmen who have for centuries maintained a fierce independence and who share the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam.

Maulana Fazl-ur Rahman, a pro-Taliban politician in Islamabad, condemned the operation.

"This operation is not in the interest of the nation. Al-Qa'ida may be against America, but they are certainly not against Pakistan and Muslims," he said. "This operation will give a negative impression about Pakistan in the Arab world."