ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani authorities gave tribal leaders a two-day ultimatum on Saturday to hand over three tribesmen believed to have sheltered al-Qaida terrorists near the Afghan border. Troops meanwhile were hunting suspected al-Qaida militants or tribesmen who fired rockets Thursday at an army camp in the border area, which is a possible hideout for Osama bin Laden and other fugitives. The attack killed four soldiers and wounded five.
The Pakistani military came up empty-handed after launching a raid backed by helicopters Thursday to capture 15-20 suspected al-Qaida fighters who were believed to be hiding at three compounds in the tiny village of Kalosha, near the border with Afghanistan.
Searches of the compounds turned up nothing, and the three owners as well as the al-Qaida suspects eluded capture.
The operation took place near Wana in South Waziristan, one of Pakistan’s deeply conservative, semiautonomous tribal areas in mountains along the Afghan border where bin Laden and other al-Qaida members and supporters of Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime may be hiding.
The tribal elders were warned Saturday that the government will consider “serious action” against them if the owners of the three compounds are not handed over in two days, Rehmat Ullah, a senior official in the region, told The Associated Press.
Authorities promised to meet the demand of the elders and free 28 people who were taken into custody for questioning, Ullah said.
A Pakistani army camp was attacked with rocket fire Thursday after the raid, initially killing two soldiers. Two more later died in a hospital.
An intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unclear who carried out the attack. The tribesmen often target Pakistani soldiers who venture into the area.
Pakistani officials have described Thursday’s operation as minor, indicating bin Laden and other high-profile al-Qaida members were not the targets.
Under Pakistani law, an entire tribe is responsible for any crime committed by one of its members and can be punished collectively. Tribal elders are expected to work with authorities and turn in any criminals. In return, the tribes have autonomy over their affairs.
The operations followed a series of attacks this week in Afghanistan that are suspected of being carried out by Taliban and possibly al-Qaida fighters amid apparent new calls by bin Laden in a taped message for Muslims to attack U.S. forces and their allies.
Taliban fighters have staged several ambushes and frequently fire rockets at U.S. bases in the area, then retreat across the border into Pakistan. U.S. military officials have said that American troops were conducting routine operations in Afghanistan and were watching the border closely.