ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani troops believe they have surrounded al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri in an operation near the Afghan border, three senior Pakistani officials said Thursday.
The officials told The Associated Press that intelligence indicated the Egyptian-born al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, has been cornered in an operation that began Tuesday in South Waziristan involving hundreds of troops and paramilitary rangers.
“We have been receiving intelligence and information from our agents who are working in the tribal areas that al-Zawahri could be among the people hiding there,” a military official said. “All of our efforts are to capture him.”
An intelligence official and senior politician in President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s government both confirmed the account. All spoke on condition of anonymity.
The United States has offered a $25 million reward for information leading to al-Zawahri’s capture.
In an interview with CNN, Musharraf said he had spoken with the commander of Pakistani troops in the region. He said the commander reported “fierce resistance” from a group of fighters entrenched in fort-like buildings and that there were indications that a senior figure was surrounded.
“He’s reasonably sure there’s a high-value target there,” Musharraf said.
Musharraf said the military was using helicopter gunships and had “pounded” the area with artillery.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a U.S. counterterrorism official said: “It would appear that the Pakistanis have surrounded a very senior al-Qaida figure, but at this point we are not certain who it is.”
The Pakistani military has been pursuing 100 tribal leaders that authorities want to roll into their efforts to hunt al-Qaida in the Waziristan frontier. So far, about two-thirds have said they would provide information and turn over any Islamic militants in their territories, American defense officials said on condition of anonymity.
The others are facing destruction of their homes by the hands of Pakistani military, officials said.
The Pakistanis also are targeting Arabs and other foreigners who settled in the tribal regions shortly after the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s, the officials said. While some veterans of the war formed the nucleus of al-Qaida, others put down roots in Pakistan.
It is believed that some of these veterans are providing a support network for bin Laden and his followers in the region, officials said.
U.S. officials say they are watching to see if the Pakistani actions send militant fighters moving back to Afghanistan, where U.S. troops operate freely.
Hundreds of Pakistani troops have moved into three South Waziristan towns – Azam Warsak, Shin Warsak and Kaloosha – firing artillery and using helicopter gunships against entrenched positions.
“They are not coming out in spite of the fact that we pounded them with artillery,” Musharraf told CNN.
Early morning calls from mosques warned residents in Azam Warsak, Shin Warsak and Kaloosha to leave the area, apparently to give the troops more room to operate.
“They asked locals, women and children, to move out, which many did. And then they shot upon the area, with … helicopters also,” Musharraf told CNN.
At least 41 people – including 15 soldiers and 26 suspected militants – were killed Tuesday in fighting in the area, and army spokesman Gen. Shaukat Sultan said there were an unknown number of casualties in continued action Thursday.
The military said Thursday that most of those killed were foreigners, but it did not give their nationalities and acknowledged that only two bodies had been recovered.
The two dead were believed to be a Chechen and someone of Middle Eastern origin, a military official said on condition of anonymity.
The news came the same day as Secretary of State Colin Powell announced in Islamabad that Washington was bestowing the status of “major non-NATO ally” on Pakistan and praised it for its help in the war on terror.
Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, promised Monday to rid the tribal areas of foreign terrorists.
Powell, who left the country hours before the announcement, also said he believed there was evidence that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is still alive and hiding in the rugged border area.
“No one has seen him, so how can one be sure?” Powell told Geo TV. “But he has certainly given evidence that he is alive and active. But we can’t be sure.
“And if he is alive and active, and the evidence suggests that he is, and if he is in the area of the Pakistan-Afghan border, that’s a very difficult area to find someone who doesn’t want to be found.”
A spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan told AP the force hoped Pakistani soldiers had indeed cornered al-Zawahri, but he had no new information on the whereabouts of either of the al-Qaida leaders.
“All the senior leaders of al-Qaida will be brought to justice,” Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said.
Hilferty said a U.S. operation begun March 7 on the Afghan side of the border was continuing, but he gave no details and said he had no information of any signs of militants fleeing from Pakistan.
About a dozen helicopters buzzed over Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, early Thursday, flying toward the operation zone about six miles to the west.
A convoy of army trucks carrying soldiers also passed Wana hours before the operation started. Later, mortar explosions were heard in the town.
Interior Ministry spokesman Abdur Rauf Chaudhry said extra troops were dispatched in anticipation of the new offensive.
He said “a few” paramilitary troops are missing from Tuesday’s operation in Kaloosha, with rumors in the region that they may have been kidnapped by the suspected militants.
The raid has sparked outrage in the tribal region, which fiercely covets its autonomy and has resisted outside intervention for centuries.
In another part of the tribal region, North Waziristan, attackers launched a rocket and fired gunshots at a Pakistan army post before dawn Thursday, Sultan said. Two soldiers died and several were injured in the attack, an intelligence official told the AP on condition of anonymity.
The official also said assailants threw a hand grenade at an army truck heading to Miran Shah, North Waziristan’s main town, and that several soldiers were injured. But Sultan denied the incident occurred.
Associated Press reporter Katherine Pfleger Shrader in Washington contributed to this report.