Vol. 4 Num 293 Wed. March 24, 2004  
Front Page

Militants ambush Pak convoy, kill 12

Attackers ambushed a Pakistani army convoy heading toward a counter-terrorism sweep against al-Qaeda militants near the Afghan border, killing at least 12 soldiers and wounding 15, officials said yesterday.

The attackers fired rockets that hit at least six army trucks in the ambush near Sarwakai, about 30 miles east of Wana, the main town of the South Waziristan tribal region.

Some of the trucks were carrying fuel and were destroyed by fire in the attack Monday, a government official in Sarwakai said on condition of anonymity.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan confirmed the attack and said army troops cordoned off the area to search for the assailants, but he declined to give more details.

At least 45 Pakistani troops are dead or missing since the bloodiest battle was unleashed a week ago near the Afghan border, according to security officials.

Sixteen troops were killed, 22 injured and 12 taken hostage when a paramilitary unit was surprised on March 16, the first day of the ongoing battle, by a fierce onslaught from scores of well-armed fighters.

Meanwhile, tribal leaders made little headway in a bid to end a week of fierce clashes near Wana between thousands of Pakistani troops and hundreds of al-Qaeda militants and sympathetic members of the Yargul Khel tribe.

Tribal elders were meeting with local officials in Wana yesterday to discuss their next step, after the Yargul Khel tribe had sought more time to discuss government demands, said Brig Mahmood Shah, chief of security for the region.

Pakistani officials said Monday they discovered a mile-long tunnel leading from a besieged mud fortress that could have offered an escape route for top al-Qaeda suspects at the start of the operation.

President Gen Pervez Musharraf said last Thursday that a "high-value" target was likely at the site. Some senior Pakistani officials have told The Associated Press that they believe al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri may have been there, though the government has repeatedly said it does not know who is inside.

The Pakistani military imposed a 20-square-mile cordon to seal the area of the fighting, and say they are confident nobody has escaped.

But the cordon was not in place at the start of the operation on March 16, when Pakistani forces who thought they were going to arrest local tribesmen were surprised by a ferocious barrage from within the compound walls. Fifteen soldiers and 26 militants died in the initial assault. The military sent in thousands of reinforcements over the following two days.

Pakistan's military said it was conducting DNA tests to identify six suspected foreign terrorists killed in the fighting, but would not elaborate on whether they included any important terror figures.

The military sweep in South Waziristan is the largest in Pakistan's tribal regions since the government threw its support behind the US-led war on terrorism in late 2001.

Brig Mahmood Shah, chief of security for the tribal areas, said Monday that 123 suspects have been arrested in the offensive. Security officials say the prisoners include Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and ethnic Uighurs from China's predominantly Muslim Xinjiang province.