Tribal area is focus of the hunt for al-Qa'ida

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The Independent Online

Waziristan, where Pakistani forces have been engaged in fierce fighting, has become the focus of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the remnants of the al-Qa'ida hierarchy after they retreated from Afghanistan.

The 10,000 square miles of rugged hills and valleys in the shadow of the Hindu Kush range has also become a haven for Taliban fighters who have launched a new offensive back across the Afghan border.

President George Bush's pledge five years ago that the US would hunt down Bin Laden and his senior lieutenants have not produced cogent results and have made raids such as the ones over the weekend necessary. While the Pakistani forces launched their latest assault, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa'ida's deputy leader, was seen on a video exhorting Hamas not to negotiate with Israel.

Yesterday's attack was the latest in a series by Pakistani forces in the region, part of the country's federally administered tribal areas, which are only nominally controlled by the central government. Several hundred lives, including those of soldiers, have been lost, but no significant figure in the insurgency has been apprehended.

Many of the Taliban forces got their initial grounding in weapons in Waziristan and pictures of one of their greatest heroes, Nek Mohammed, who was killed by a US missile, are sold in the local bazaars.

Bin Laden and 200 of his followers are believed to have found sanctuary in the region after escaping an attempted US and Afghan encirclement in the mountains of Tora Bora in 2002.

It was two years before Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf mounted an operation against al-Qa'ida and their allies in Waziristan after intense pressure from the US. Tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers were sent in, paid for by the Americans, in an attempt to crush al-Qa'ida and Taliban and stop them from crossing back into Afghanistan to attack American troops. Cross-border infiltration has continued and none of the so called high-value targets were ever hit.

Al-Qa'ida and Taliban are believed to have used the two years of grace to set up elaborate defences and escape routes among the caves and tunnels. Pakistani forces have produced pictures of what they claim to be an al-Qa'ida command control centre with factories for producing explosive devices and where bomb makers were trained. The complex also contained fax machines, telephones, financial records and even video equipment for making propaganda films.

Pakistani forces have demolished homes, sealed off shops and businesses, seized vehicles and dismissed from government posts tribesmen they accuse of non-co-operation. One tribe, the Ahmadzai Wazir, was fined $95,000 (£54,000) under a local law of collective responsibility for failing to stop rocket attacks. Meanwhile, dozens of tribal elders accused of collaborating with the Pakistani government and the Americans have been murdered. Tribal feelings were further inflamed after US warplanes bombed a village, in another part of the frontier area, killing civilians while targeting Zawahiri.