PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Pakistan called its mission to chase down and kill Taliban and al-Qaida militants a success and began withdrawing troops Sunday after tribesmen along the border with Afghanistan agreed to release captured soldiers and politicians.
Officials said, however, troops would remain in the unruly western border region while tribal leaders negotiate the hand-over of other foreign militants.
Eleven soldiers were released Sunday morning and two local officials were expected to be released later in the day or early Monday, said Brig. Mahmood Shah, the regional security chief.
Another soldier escaped before he could be released, he added.
“The main objectives of the operation have been achieved. They included destroying dens, searching of homes, taking people into custody and the recovery of gadgets and equipment,” Shah said.
Troops would regroup in South Waziristan’s main town of Wana and remain in the area, he said.
But Shah said 500-600 suspected militants still may be hiding along the border with Afghanistan and he did not rule out using military force against them. The army would continue using a combination of military operations and talks with tribal leaders to rid the region of suspected al-Qaida forces and allies, he said.
About 10,000 Mahsud tribesmen met Sunday near Wana to help authorities track the perpetrators of an attack on an army convoy last week.
Late Saturday, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said recently gathered intelligence — combined with eyewitness accounts — indicated that alleged terrorist Tahir Yuldash had been badly wounded and was in hiding. He said Pakistani forces were not close to capturing him.
“He might have slipped away, he’s on the run,” Sultan said.
Yuldash is the leader of an Uzbek terror group allied with al-Qaida called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He was previously mentioned as one of two possible “high-value targets” cornered when Pakistan’s military began the sweep of South Waziristan on March 16.
Despite the apparent escape, Sultan said the operation had been successful because the military had killed 60 suspected militants and captured 163 more.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key ally of the United States, has sent 70,000 troops to the border with Afghanistan since the Sept. 11 attacks to prevent cross-border attacks — the first such deployment since independence from Britain in 1947.
U.S. and Afghan forces have deployed on the other side of the border as part of a new offensive against al-Qaida and Taliban forces there. Musharraf has said U.S. experts are working with Pakistani troops, but no American military forces have crossed into Pakistan.
“As far as al-Qaida is concerned, yes, indeed, they are in bigger numbers than we thought in that region. And we need to eliminate them. It’s very clear that we will eliminate them,” Musharraf said in an interview on ABC News’ “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” aired Sunday in the United States.
He said tribal elders from six of the seven tribal groups in western Pakistan were cooperating with the government’s efforts to capture, kill or drive out foreign extremists.
“They are cooperating with us, cooperating with the army. And I’m very sure we’ll take a very hard stand, and the writ of the government will be established, and these people have to be eliminated,” Musharraf said