A Pakistani deadline for hundreds of foreign militants near the Afghan border to surrender to the authorities passed on Friday, but not a single person had come forward to give himself up, officials said.
Pakistan’s army, pursuing al Qaeda militants and their allies in rugged tribal regions, gave foreign fighters until April 30 to surrender or face military action.
But military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan said the expiry of the deadline did not mean a military assault was imminent, and the government appears to want a political solution to avoid a repeat of last month’s bloodshed in the tribal belt.
“Launching of the operation has got no relationship with the deadline,” Sultan said.
More than 120 people were killed in a botched operation in March when hundreds of al Qaeda militants and their tribal allies fought fierce battles with Pakistani forces in the South Waziristan tribal region.
U.S. and Pakistani officials believe al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, deputy Ayman al-Zawahri and former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar may be hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Residents in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, saw no unusual troop activity in the region as the government’s deadline neared, saying the situation was normal.
“There is no tension. People are just getting ready for Friday prayers,” said a resident in the deeply conservative region. Paramilitary soldiers were making routine checks of vehicles entering the semi-autonomous region.
DEAL WITH TRIBESMEN
In a bid to avert further fighting, Pakistani authorities struck a deal with five top tribesmen suspected of sheltering al Qaeda militants last week by granting them pardon in return for a pledge not to stage militant attacks.
Whether the United States, which has put pressure on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to do more in the hunt for fugitives, will be satisfied with recent developments remains to be seen.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the government in Kabul say many attacks on Afghan soil by Islamic militants are launched from Pakistan.
Some Pakistani officials have said aggressive U.S. military tactics in Iraq have backfired as the insurgency there gathers pace, and say there are some parallels with what could happen in tribal areas.
Officials said they had urged Islamic clerics to persuade foreigners to register with the authorities.
Pakistan has 25 senior al Qaeda and Taliban suspects on its wanted list, but has offered to let other foreign “mujahideen,” or holy warriors, stay if they register their presence.
Some Arabs and Central Asians in the region are veterans of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan who later backed the Taliban and married into tribes they fought alongside.
Pakistan thought it had cornered a senior al Qaeda figure, possibly al-Zawahri, last month, but no top militants were caught. Senior Uzbek al Qaeda member Tahir Yuldashev was reportedly hurt in the fighting.