Encircled fighters wage fierce battle

KARACHI, Pakistan – Several thousand Pakistani army troops have surrounded between 150 and 400 tribal fighters and foreign Islamic guerrillas, some of them associated with al-Qaida, as heavy fighting continued in a remote area near the border with Afghanistan, military officials said Friday.

The intensity of the resistance encountered in the rugged hills of South Waziristan has prompted speculation by some military commanders that the tribal fighters and their foreign allies may be protecting senior al-Qaida figures such as Ayman Zawahri, an Egyptian physician who is Osama bin Laden’s top deputy.

Senior officials said Friday that the foreigners include Chechens, Uzbeks and some Arabs, but they said they had no specific evidence that either bin Laden or Zawahri was in the area.

“Most recent intelligence inputs do not support the perception that either Osama or Ayman are holed up in that vicinity,” said a senior military intelligence officer in Peshawar, the capital of the province in northwestern Pakistan that includes the semi-autonomous tribal area of South Waziristan.

“The idea is to send the strongest message yet to the al-Qaida supporters, but who knows? We may hit the jackpot in the process,” the official added.

Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, told reporters at a news conference in Islamabad that the guerrillas “are surrounded and they are trying to break the cordon and get away.”

Based on “an assessment from the fire we are receiving,” Sultan said, military commanders estimated the guerrillas’ strength at 300 to 400. A military officer in Peshawar put the number at about 150.

Sultan declined to comment on the number of casualties in Friday’s operation.

Besides ridding the area of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, the immediate goal of Friday’s operation was to free about a dozen Pakistani paramilitary solders and two civilian officials who were taken hostage by the foreign fighters on Tuesday, when the army launched its sweep in South Waziristan, according to the two military officers in Peshawar.

On Friday, Pakistani forces surrounded guerrillas who had taken refuge in mud-walled compounds scattered among several villages west of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan. The operation is centered on an area a few miles from the border with Afghanistan, the officials said. Helicopters attacked the guerrillas’ compounds with rockets, while ground troops pounded the besieged fighters with artillery. The Pakistani army officer said there was “considerable coordination” with U.S. ground forces operating nearby in Afghanistan.

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