(AP) WANA, Pakistan – Helicopter gunships and about 1,000 Pakistani troops on Wednesday raided a suspected hideout of an al-Qaida-linked militant chief, trading gun and mortar fire with fighters in the mountainous region near the Afghan border, officials said.
Abdullah Mehsud, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who was released in March, is suspected to be hiding in the area. The one-legged militant commander is believed responsible for the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers on Oct. 9.
The raid came a day after the top military commander in the area said he believed it was unlikely Osama bin Laden was hiding in the tribal region, as U.S. authorities suspect.
Wednesday’s fighting began at dawn and was centered on Spinkai Raghzai, a village about 35 miles northeast of Wana, the main town in the South Waziristan region, an intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.
He said the helicopter gunships pounded hilltops where the militants are believed to be. Another intelligence official said both sides were using mortars, while security forces were also firing artillery.
There was no word on casualties.
The official said that while Spinkai Raghzai was believed to be a Mehsud stronghold, the militant commander keeps changing his location.
“You can’t be sure where he is,” he told The Associated Press.
A senior army official, who asked not to be named, confirmed the fighting but gave no details.
Mehsud’s whereabouts have not been known since last Thursday, when commandos raided a house where five of his men were holding the two Chinese engineers. One of the Chinese was freed but the other was killed in the assault. All five of the kidnappers were killed.
Security chiefs then vowed to hunt down Mehsud, who had been hiding in mountains close to the raided house and disappeared after the attack.
The army has also long been hunting bin Laden in the area, but Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, the top commander in northwest Pakistan, said late Tuesday his forces have found no sign of the terrorist leader.
“Everything is in our view, if Osama bin Laden was there we would know. He cannot hide there. He is not there,” Hussain told reporters in Peshawar city.
U.S. authorities have long said they believe bin Laden is in the rugged tribal region, but there has been no firm evidence of his whereabouts for three years. Pakistani leaders have gone back and forth on whether they believe the al-Qaida chief is in their territory.
Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, has arrested more than 600 al-Qaida suspects, but none of the senior figures has been caught in the border region. They have mostly been nabbed in cities in other parts of the country.
However, Hussain said there are still hundreds of militants, many of whom are suspected to have ties to al-Qaida, in the region.
He said that since March, security forces have killed 246 of them, including 100 foreigners, and arrested 579. About 170 army and paramilitary troops have also been killed in the crackdown, he said.
“Our war against foreign terrorists will continue … until we are successful. We will rest after the foreign terrorists are eliminated,” he said.