PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden can not be hiding in Pakistan’s tribal lands on the Afghan border as Pakistani forces have combed the area and found no hint of him, a Pakistani army commander says.
Bin Laden and his bodyguards could not go undetected in the rugged tribal lands, although pockets of al Qaeda-backed fighters are battling Pakistani forces there, said Lieutenant-General Safdar Hussain on Thursday.
“He requires his own protection and the kind of security apparatus he is supposed to have around would give us a very big signature,” Hussain told Reuters in an interview in his well-fortified headquarters in the northwest city of Peshawar.
“There is not an inch of South Waziristan agency or the tribal area which we have not swept time and again and if he was here, I assure you he could not have escaped my ears and eyes.”
Hussain is military chief of northwest Pakistan and heads a campaign to clear out al-Qaeda militants, most of whom took refuge in Pakistan’s lawless border lands after U.S.-led forces captured the Tora Bora mountains in eastern Afghanistan in late 2001.
U.S. commanders hunting for bin Laden in Afghanistan say they can’t find him there and he might be in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Other reports suggest he may have taken refuge in disputed Kashmir but officials there say security is too tight for bin Laden to go unnoticed.
The hunt for the man who masterminded the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington took on new urgency just before the U.S. election this month, when a video surfaced in which he warned of retaliation against the United States for deaths in Iraq.
FEW MILITANTS LEFT
Hussain said 75,000 government troops had been deployed since March in the semi-autonomous area, which has never been under the full control of Pakistan’s government, to root out militants.
He said 202 members of the security forces had been killed while 302 militants, almost 150 of them foreigners, had been killed. More than 600 militants had been arrested, he said.
Only about 70 or 80 militants were left in the area, most followers of Uzbek al Qaeda commander Tahir Yuldashev, Hussain said.
“He is the magnet. He is the unifying force for the foreign fighters,” he said. Yuldashev was believed to be moving back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan, he said.
“These local militants are working as proxies of Tahir Yuldashev and al Qaeda people in this area. They are being funded by them. They are continuing with their hostile activities.”
Militants kidnapped two Chinese engineers in October. One of the men was killed in a rescue but Hussain said overall, his men were driving the militants out.
“Most of the militants are on the run in search of new abodes and hide-outs. That gives me a very good feeling that we have uprooted them from their old safe haven,” he said.
“The bigger fish like number one and number two, if they were here in tribal areas, I am sure we could have caught them,” he said, referring to bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahri.