ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) — Pakistani forces will use as much force as necessary to root out hundreds of suspected al Qaeda fighters believed to be protecting a “high-value target” — perhaps al Qaeda’s reputed second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri — in a mountainous region of northwestern Pakistan, the military said Friday.
Heavy fighting continues in remote areas of southern Waziristan, on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, where thousands of Pakistani forces have cordoned off 19 square miles (50 square kilometers) with two lines of defense, officials said.
“The mission is to get these people dead or alive,” Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said at a military briefing.
Sultan said a government offer of surrender still stands, and added that the military intended to use a minimum amount of force but would not shy from using more if necessary.
Military officials said they were pounding the area with artillery and rockets from Cobra attack helicopters.
The officials upped their estimate of how many fighters their forces were facing from 200 to between 300 and 400. Their opposition, they said, was made up of al Qaeda fighters and allied tribesmen.
They said al Qaeda’s well-trained and well-equipped fighters were fighting back with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy gunfire, though so far the battle has included little close combat.
U.S. officials said Pakistani forces have sustained “a lot of casualties.”
Friday’s weather provided better visibility, and U.S. intelligence is monitoring the fighting.
Although U.S. officials declined to comment on whether Predator surveillance drones are aloft in the area — or that spy satellites are focusing attention on it — they did say that they are providing any assistance that the Pakistanis have requested.
For weeks, knowledgeable sources confirmed, a small team of American intelligence professionals and military personnel has been attached to Pakistani military units in the tribal area, providing real-time intelligence and communications assistance.
Taliban vow to retaliate
In a videotaped message delivered to the Arabic-language network Al-Jazeera, a spokesman for the Taliban, Afghanistan’s former rulers and allies of al Qaeda, acknowledged the Pakistani operations in Waziristan and vowed to respond in kind.
“The Pakistanis have deceived us in a way that will never be forgotten,” said Abdul Latif Hakimi, who appeared in the video with his face covered.
“The Pakistani government is trying its best to wage operations against us. … That is why we are going to wage operations against them.”
Hakimi also pledged to “attack the American forces if they attack us on either side of those borders.” The Taliban spokesman did not mention al-Zawahiri, but said the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had pledged his allegiance to al Qaeda.
However, the authenticity of the videotape was in question. The Reuters news agency said it had spoken with Hakimi and he denied issuing any such statement.
Earlier, Pakistan Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said he suspects the fighters are protecting a “high-value target” that may be al-Zawahiri, but could not confirm it was him. (Profile)
Speaking to CNN on Friday morning, Ahmed was wary of providing more details, noting that al Qaeda is monitoring television and newspaper reports.
“They never surrender, the al Qaeda people,” Ahmed said. “They like to fight and they like to die there, so the only thing I can say is, we have to wait and see.”
Eight fighters were taken prisoner in two incidents around midday Friday, the military said. Five are believed to be non-Pakistani and three are local tribesmen. None of the eight has provided any information about any al Qaeda leader in the area, but with one group, the military recovered a large cache of weapons.
Ten others tried to break the cordon, the military said. One was killed, and the other nine fled back into the fighters’ compound, an area of fortified mud houses with high lookout towers.
Al-Zawahiri alleged top al Qaeda lieutenant
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told CNN on Thursday that Pakistani forces moved into the area earlier this week and encountered fierce resistance, which he interpreted as a sign that someone was being protected.
“They are not coming out in spite of the fact that we pounded them with artillery,” he said. He did not name the figure being protected, but said it may be a “high-value target.”
Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian national, is considered by U.S. intelligence to be Osama bin Laden’s closest adviser. U.S. officials believe bin Laden may be within miles of al-Zawahiri.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Al-Zawahiri’s capture would be a “major step forward” in the war on terrorism, but added, “We have to dismantle the entire network, not just one person.”
The United States is offering a $25 million reward for al-Zawahiri. U.S. officials believe if he is captured they could likely work out a deal with Pakistan to have him turned over to U.S. custody.
The military does not know how many al Qaeda fighters it may have killed in the fighting so far because when someone appears to be hit the fighters immediately pull him into a compound, government sources said. They are also burying bodies quickly, the sources said.
One U.S. official who is in touch with Pakistani officials about the situation told CNN that Pakistani forces are “fighting like hell.”
U.S. officials have long said they believe bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are probably in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met with Musharraf on a swing through the region, said the Pakistani president gave him “a pretty detailed description, kind of almost soldier-to-soldier, of the battle that’s taking place there.”
Powell said he had no information as to who may be in the area.