ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) — The Pakistani military says it has found a series of tunnels that al Qaeda terrorists may have used to escape a cordon set up by thousands of troops.
Asked if the “high-value target” the Pakistani military believes is in the area could have escaped through a tunnel, a government spokesman said, “It’s possible.”
The longest of the tunnels, said to be about 1 mile (1.6 km) long runs from the houses of two tribesmen, Nek Mohammed and Sharif Mohammed, and ends near the border with Afghanistan, officials said.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s Office of Security for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) said the tunnel had just been discovered.
He said the tunnel’s exit is within an area now surrounded by the Pakistani military, but he conceded al Qaeda militants might have used it earlier to escape.
On Sunday, Pakistani tribal leaders began efforts to broker an end to fierce fighting between Pakistani troops and suspected militants along the Afghan border. (Full story)
Meanwhile, speculation persisted about who the fighters — including local tribesmen — might be protecting.
The fighting attracted global attention when Pakistani officials — expressing surprise at the ferocity of the resistance encountered near Wana and Shkin Warsak in southern Waziristan — suggested the fighters could be protecting al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri.
U.S. officials have long said they believe al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden are hiding in the remote mountain region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
But the Americans quickly said they had no information that al-Zawahiri was present last week, and the Pakistanis later followed suit.
But the Pakistanis said they were certain some of the fighters were al Qaeda and that they were protecting a “high-value target” — someone high on the list of wanted terrorists — inside a 19-square-mile (50-square-km) area cordoned off by the military.
“We think it’s a high-value target, one or more, because of the intensity of the resistance,” said Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States. “Our people were surprised.”
Qazi told CNN’s “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer” that intercepted communications led them to believe a high-value target was holed up in one of the mud forts in the area. But he said the communicators “talk in code” and that nothing had been confirmed.
Military sources said one of the intercepted conversations apparently referred to a wounded person who would need four people to carry him out and another 12 to protect him.
“We have made it absolutely clear that we do not know the identity of the high-value target,” he said.
After initially dropping broad hints they believed the target was al-Zawahiri, the Pakistanis backed off the claim over the weekend, saying it could be an Uzbek or Chechen commander or even a local criminal or gangster.
Pakistan has been carrying out anti-terrorism operations along the border for several weeks. The current battle began Tuesday, when the Frontier Constabulary paramilitary group ran into trouble during a routine search.
Fifteen paramilitary soldiers were killed in the initial fight, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said, and about two dozen others were wounded.
The military later said the fighters had captured about a dozen paramilitary soldiers and several government liaisons.
Pakistani intelligence officials said DNA samples from dead fighters were being given to U.S. officials for testing. However, U.S. officials said they have received no tissue samples and know of no plans to test samples of DNA from those killed.
The Pakistanis also said they captured about 100 of the fighters, many of them Uzbeks, Arabs and other foreign fighters.
Tribal leaders met early Sunday with Pakistani military officials and persuaded the army to reduce its air assault on the region to intermittent fire, military sources said.
In return, the tribal leaders agreed to enter the area and try to persuade the Ahmed Zai tribe to hand over captives and any militants they may be protecting, the sources said.
About 65 tribal elders from seven regions had convened a loya jirga, or tribal council, in Wana, Pakistan’s FATA office said.