(AP) KARWANA MANZAI, Pakistan – On a strategic mountaintop not far from the Afghan border, soldiers man machine guns in dry stone bunkers and the boom of rocket and artillery fire occasionally echoes in the distance. The Pakistani commanding general gestures toward the arid hills on the horizon where his troops have advanced in the last two days and makes a bold prediction: South Waziristan — a haven for al-Qaida-linked guerrillas who fled Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban — will be pacified by the year’s end.
But Maj. Gen. Niaz Khattak has another, more disappointing message — there’s no sign of the man that Pakistan’s American allies in the war on terror really want him to catch: Osama bin Laden.
“So far I have no indication whatsoever of Osama bin Laden. There has not even been a rumor Osama bin Laden is in the area,” Khattak told reporters flown to the region by helicopter Saturday.
South Waziristan long has been regarded as one of the most likely hiding places for bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, although there has been no solid intelligence to support that. Khattak did not rule out the possibility they are here but considered it very unlikely.
Between 7,000 and 8,000 Pakistani forces have been deployed in a three-pronged offensive in the eastern reaches of the rugged region this week, the latest in a series of bloody military operations that have left at least 170 Pakistani soldiers and nearly 300 militants, including 100 foreigners, dead since March.
Using artillery and helicopter gunships, the army says it has overrun several rebel bases and killed between 30 and 40 militants — although it so far has recovered only six bodies.
His men have come under repeated assault by militants, whom he described as the “lowest tier” of al-Qaida fighters — mainly Uzbeks, Chechens, Tajiks and Afghans, supported by renegade local tribesmen.
The explosion of violence this year in South Waziristan — a semiautonomous tribal region that has long resisted interference from the central government — has alarmed many Pakistanis and stoked criticism of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s support of the U.S.-led war on terror. Besides the hundreds of soldiers, militants and civilians who have been killed, thousands of villagers have been displaced.
But Khattak claimed success. He estimated that the number of foreign guerrillas has dwindled from 500 or 600 in March to about 100 now. The rest have died, fled or been captured, although he could cite only one, a young Tajik, who had been caught alive.
He contended that the entire western portion of the region, controlled by the Wazir tribe, had been pacified. Five renegade leaders signed a peace deal with the government this week. However, a bomb attack in the main town of Wana on Saturday that killed at least three soldiers and one passer-by showed that the threat of sporadic attacks remained.
In the eastern portion, about 300 local fighters are still putting up resistance alongside the foreign militants, but Khattak expected the entire region would be under army control within two months.
“I hope we should not take long. By the end of this year, we should be able to see a very peaceful South Waziristan,” he said.
On the Karwana Manzai escarpment the captured belongings of rebel fighters were spread on tarpaulins: sleeping bags, shoes, bread, detonators, guns and bullets.
Hidden among the weaponry, a flimsy exercise book contained the will of an Afghan fighter who hailed from a refugee camp in Pakistan. It was neatly written in Pashto language before he went to the front line.
The simple words of Wahdatullah Intezar evoke some pity for a poor man fighting for a cause he believed in. He tells his mother not to weep if he dies and instructs her to repay his paltry debts: 50 cents to a fruit juice seller, $1.65 to the uncle of a friend.
“If I’m martyred don’t cry for me and don’t be sad for me. You should be proud,” writes Intezar. “Ask forgiveness of my relatives, particularly Gulsoom (an unidentified female). I had hurt her once and maybe she’s angry with me.”