WANA, Pakistan – Pakistani forces exchanged fire with gunmen in a minibus that failed to stop at a roadblock early Saturday, killing 11 people and injuring six, the army spokesman told The Associated Press. The shooting, in a tribal region that has been a focus of anti-terrorist operations, occurred hours after armed men and soldiers exchanged fire at a military compound in the area.
Pakistani forces have been carrying out a sweep for terrorist suspects in the area, believed to be a possible hiding place for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Pentagon and Pakistani officials denied a report by Iranian state radio Saturday that bin Laden was captured in the border region with Afghanistan “a long time ago.” Larry Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman said: “I don’t have any reason to think it’s true.”
Pakistan’s Army spokesman Gen. Shaukat Sultan also said there was “no truth” to the story.
The minibus failed to stop at a roadblock in Zeri Noor, a village just outside of Wana, the main town in tribal South Waziristan and the site of counterterrorism operations earlier this week, Sultan told The Associated Press. He said soldiers only shot at the bus after someone inside opened fire on them.
Sixteen people were arrested. The nationality of those killed was not immediately clear. Two boys were among the injured.
Allah Dad, a local resident, told AP the bus was filled mostly with Afghan refugees on their way to the border. A taxi driving near the minibus was also hit, and the driver killed, Dad said. He said as many as 12 people were killed, and seven more injured in the incident.
“They opened fire when the bus didn’t stop,” Dad said. “There is a lot of tension in the area and a lot of troops. The roads to Afghanistan have been sealed.”
Sultan said that troops had begun increasing their presence in Wana, 190 miles west of the capital, Islamabad, on Friday to provide additional security to stave off religious violence during the upcoming Muharram holiday. Muharram is the mourning month for Shiites, when they recall the seventh-century death of Hussein, grandson of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed.
In a separate incident Friday, armed men tried to sneak into a military compound in Wana, sparking a shootout, Sultan said Saturday. A soldier was injured by a rocket fired by the attackers, local administration official Mohammed Azam Khan said.
Saturday’s deaths are likely to increase anger in the region, where tribal leaders resent the presence of the army. Pakistani forces have been slowly increasing their presence under pressure from the United States to crack down on al-Qaida and Taliban suspects believed to be in the region.
The counterterrorism operation in Wana, 190 miles west of the capital, Islamabad, is the fourth by the army in the region since the Sept. 11 attacks. Troops arrested 25 suspected terrorists in Wana on Tuesday.
Security officials caution they have no confirmed information on the whereabouts of bin Laden, but say the operations are geared toward locating him.
They say Pakistani rapid reaction forces have been deployed to specific areas along the border with Afghanistan, a mountainous landscape that runs 2,000 miles from the Himalayas in Pakistan’s northern territories to the desert of southwestern Baluchistan.
Meanwhile, Cofer Black, the U.S. Coordinator for Counterterrorism, was in the capital, Islamabad, for talks with Pakistani officials.
Black met Friday with Tariq Osman Hyder, a senior Foreign Ministry official, to discuss cooperation in the global campaign against terrorism, a ministry statement said.
The U.S. Embassy confirmed Black’s arrival but would give no details about his meetings.