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Pakistani forces had surrounded a "high-value target"

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Thursday, March 18, 2004

WANA, Pakistan — Pakistani troops and paramilitary forces using artillery and helicopter gunships launched a new assault Thursday against Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects in a tribal region near Afghanistan, two days after a fierce assault that left dozens dead.

In a report from Islamabad, an American news channel said Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search) told them Pakistani forces had surrounded a "high-value target" that was being protected by Al Qaeda fighters. The news channel said the identity of the target was not known.

The new push began in Azam Warsak, Shin Warsak and Kaloosha villages in South Waziristan (search), the tribal region that borders Afghanistan, said Brig. Mahmood Shah, the chief of security for the area.

Army spokesman Gen. Shaukat Sultan said there have been casualties in the new offensive, but he had no details of how many or on which side.

The operation follows a clash between security forces and suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda holdouts in a fortress-like compound in the village of Kaloosha, just miles from the border. Some 39 people — including 15 troops and 26 militants, died in the raid on Tuesday, the military said Thursday in a statement. Eighteen other suspects were captured.

The statement said most of those killed Tuesday were foreigners, but it gave no details of nationalities and acknowledged that only two of the bodies had been recovered. No senior Al Qaeda figures are believed to have been among those killed or captured.

One of the two dead militants whose bodies were recovered was a Chechen and the other was believed to be of Middle Eastern origin, a military official said on condition of anonymity.

In another part of the tribal region — North Waziristan (search) — attackers launched a rocket and fired gunshots at a Pakistan army post before dawn on Thursday, Sultan said. Two soldiers died and several were injured in the attack, according to an intelligence official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The official also said that assailants threw a hand grenade at an army truck heading to Miran Shah, the main town of North Waziristan,and that several soldiers were injured. But Sultan denied the incident occurred.

The fresh operation in South Waziristan began as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell began talks with Pakistani leaders in the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday.

Powell was meeting with Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. They were expected to discuss the operation in Kaloosha, as well as U.S. efforts to track Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts on the Afghan side of the border.

The aim of the operation is to "flush out foreign terrorists from Pakistani territory," Shah told The Associated Press from the northwestern city of Peshawar, a regional capital where he is based.

Early morning calls from mosques warned residents in Azam Warsak, Shin Warsak and Kaloosha to leave the area, apparently to give the troops more room to operate.

About a dozen helicopters buzzed over Wana, in South Waziristan, early Thursday, flying toward the operation zone about 6 miles to the west.

A convoy of army trucks carrying soldiers also passed Wana hours before it started. Later, when the operation began, mortar booms could be heard in the town, from the direction of the battle zone.

Interior Ministry spokesman Abdur Rauf Chaudhry said extra troops were dispatched in anticipation of the new offensive.

"Reinforcements have been sent to the area," Chaudhry told AP.

He said "a few" paramilitary troops are missing since the operation in Kaloosha on Tuesday, with rumors in the region that they may have been kidnapped by the suspected militants.

The raid in Kaloosha on Tuesday sparked outrage in the tribal region, which fiercely covets its autonomy and has resisted foreign intervention for centuries.

After the battle, attackers set fire to several military vehicles, some containing weapons and munitions.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan announced over the weekend the start of an operation — dubbed Mountain Storm — to capture terror fugitives, including Usama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

On Monday, Musharraf promised to rid Pakistan's tribal areas of foreign terrorists. Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal regions border eastern and southern Afghanistan — the focus of operation Mountain Storm.

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Pakistan: Al-Qaida No. 2 may be surrounded

Officials say al-Zawahri believed trapped near Afghan border

A spokesman for the Pakistani army told NBC News, quoting the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, that a “high-value target†was cornered in South Waziristan, along the Afghan border, based on the level of resistance Pakistani forces were encountering.

Musharraf said the identity of the target was unknown, but three other senior government officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that intelligence indicated that the figure was al-Zawhri.

U.S. military officials in Washington told NBC News that they had no information on the report.

The development grew out of a new offensive that Pakistani troops and paramilitary forces launched Thursday against al-Qaida and Taliban suspects in a tribal region near Afghanistan, two days after a fierce assault in which dozens of people died.

The new push began in Azam Warsak, Shin Warsak and Kaloosha villages in South Waziristan, the tribal region that borders Afghanistan, said Brig. Mahmood Shah, the chief of security for the area. The Army spokesman, Gen. Shaukat Sultan, said there had been casualties in the new offensive, but he said he had no details.

The operation follows a clash between security forces and suspected Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts in a fortress-like compound in the village of Kaloosha, just miles from the border. Some 39 people — including 15 troops and 26 militants, died in the raid on Tuesday, the military said Thursday in a statement. Eighteen other suspects were captured.

The statement said most of those killed Tuesday were foreigners, but it gave no details of nationalities and acknowledged that only two of the bodies had been recovered. No senior al-Qaida figures are believed to have been among those killed or captured.

One of the two dead militants whose bodies were recovered was a Chechen and the other was believed to be of Middle Eastern origin, a military official said on condition of anonymity.

In another part of the tribal region — North Waziristan — attackers launched a rocket and fired gunshots at a Pakistan army post before dawn on Thursday, Sultan said. Two soldiers died and several were injured in the attack, according to an intelligence official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The official also said that assailants threw a hand grenade at an army truck heading to Miran Shah, the main town of North Waziristan,and that several soldiers were injured. But Sultan denied the incident occurred.

The fresh operation in South Waziristan began as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell began talks with Pakistani leaders in the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday.

Powell was meeting with Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. They were expected to discuss the operation in Kaloosha, as well as U.S. efforts to track al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts on the Afghan side of the border.

The aim of the operation is to “flush out foreign terrorists from Pakistani territory,†Shah told The Associated Press from the northwestern city of Peshawar, a regional capital where he is based.

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Early morning calls from mosques warned residents in Azam Warsak, Shin Warsak and Kaloosha to leave the area, apparently to give the troops more room to operate.

About a dozen helicopters buzzed over Wana, in South Waziristan, early Thursday, flying toward the operation zone about 6 miles to the west.

A convoy of army trucks carrying soldiers also passed Wana hours before it started. Later, when the operation began, mortar booms could be heard in the town, from the direction of the battle zone.

Interior Ministry spokesman Abdur Rauf Chaudhry said extra troops were dispatched in anticipation of the new offensive.

“Reinforcements have been sent to the area,†Chaudhry told AP.

He said “a few†paramilitary troops are missing since the operation in Kaloosha on Tuesday, with rumors in the region that they may have been kidnapped by the suspected militants.

The raid in Kaloosha on Tuesday sparked outrage in the tribal region, which fiercely covets its autonomy and has resisted foreign intervention for centuries.

After the battle, attackers set fire to several military vehicles, some containing weapons and munitions.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan announced over the weekend the start of an operation — dubbed Mountain Storm — to capture terror fugitives, including Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

On Monday, Musharraf promised to rid Pakistan’s tribal areas of foreign terrorists. Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal regions border eastern and southern Afghanistan — the focus of operation Mountain Storm.

NBC’s Bob Kur in Washington and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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