ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) # Pakistani forces have launched an operation against al Qaeda along the country’s border with Afghanistan, Pakistan’s security agency has said.
The operation is taking place in an area of the country’s mountainous South Waziristan region known as Vana, according to the agency.
A witness in the region told CNN he had seen more than a dozen helicopter gunships in the sky, after a night of extensive troop and equipment movements.
The operation was announced as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca were to arrive in Pakistan for talks on the war on terrorism.
Through October 8, the U.S. diplomats are on a tour of South and Central Asia that includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
They will also visit the United Kingdom on their way back to Washington.
At the same time, Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali is in the United States to meet with senior officials.
WANA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistan launched a hunt for fugitive al Qaeda militants in a lawless tribal region next to Afghanistan Thursday, billing the operation as a demonstration of its commitment to the U.S.-led war on terror.
The operation coincides with a visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who has questioned the commitment of some in Pakistan’s security community. He arrives Thursday on a tour that will also take him to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, spokesman for the Pakistan military, said ground troops and helicopters had been deployed to the mountainous Wana region, some 220 miles southwest of the capital Islamabad.
“It started early this morning in the Wana area,” he told Reuters. Wana is in the South Waziristan agency, a remote, semi-autonomous border region where al Qaeda members are believed to have fled after the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan late in 2001.
“Our Quick Reaction Force is involved. Our ground troops and aviation assets are also taking part in it.”
Sultan said the operation had been launched after intelligence reports suggested that “suspected al Qaeda elements” were holding out in the area. He gave no further details.
A military statement said no foreign troops were involved in the operation, a sensitive issue in a country where the Islamic religious right is flexing its political muscle.
“The operation is being conducted by the Pakistan security forces and there are no foreign troops or agencies involved,” the statement said.
“Being a frontline coalition partner in the war on terrorism, this operation manifests Pakistan’s commitment to eliminate terrorism in all its forms from her soil,” it added.
Witnesses told Reuters that 12 to 13 Pakistani military helicopters landed in Wana early in the morning.
“They (later) moved to the border area and we have heard that they have surrounded suspected hideouts. We have heard that a major operation against al Qaeda is being launched,” said a local journalist, speaking from Wana.
Pakistan says it has arrested around 500 al Qaeda members since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. They include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot.
Pakistani and U.S. officials suspect that Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri may be hiding in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas.