Pakistan launches fresh anti-al Qaeda offensive
Pakistani troops launched a fresh offensive Tuesday against al Qaeda and Taliban militants hiding in remote tribal areas near the Afghan border, officials said.
A day earlier, U.S. and Pakistani military officials said the whereabouts of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remained a mystery, despite a British news report saying his location had been narrowed down to Pakistani mountains near the Afghan border.
Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told Reuters the latest operation was launched near Wana, nearly 190 miles northeast of where bin Laden was reported to be hiding.
Asked whether the operation was targeting bin Laden, he said: "It is against foreign terrorists."
Residents in the South Waziristan tribal region said they saw at least 14 helicopters flying overhead in the early morning. "I saw two big white helicopters and 12 military helicopters at 6:30 a.m. (8:30 p.m. EST Monday)," Mohammad Tariq, a local resident said. "After sometime, I heard two explosions." Residents said the helicopters landed at Kalotai village, some 10 miles west of Wana, capital of South Waziristan. Wana is some (360 km (225 miles) southeast of Islamabad.
Residents said heavily armed paramilitary troops had blocked all roads leading to South Waziristan. "It appears that they are going to launch a ground offensive," Tariq said.
Tuesday's operation came hours after U.S. President Bush vowed to track down al Qaeda militants.
"We are on the hunt for al Qaeda," he told a meeting of U.S. governors at the White House.
"It requires all assets, intelligence assets and military assets, to chase them down and bring them to justice, and we're going pretty good -- better than pretty good."
The operation also follows a visit to Pakistan earlier this month by CIA Director George Tenet in which he is thought to have discussed the hunt for bin Laden and al Qaeda.
PAKISTAN A KEY US ALLY
Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, has arrested more than 500 al Qaeda suspects and handed them over to the United States since the September 11 in 2001.
Authorities in South Waziristan have been pressuring tribesmen in recent months to hand over al Qaeda suspects and Taliban fighters hiding in the region.
In October, eight al Qaeda or Taliban suspects were killed in a Pakistani operation in the region. They included Ahmed Saeed Khadr, an Egyptian-born Canadian thought to be an al Qaeda financier, and a top Chinese Islamic militant Hasan Mahsum.
Earlier this year, U.S. military officials in Kabul boldly predicted bin Laden's capture in 2004, and Britain's Sunday Express weekly reported that the Saudi-born dissident was "boxed in" by U.S. and British special forces in Pakistani mountains along the Afghan border.
The newspaper said bin Laden was within a 10 mile by 10 mile area, north of the Pakistani town of Quetta being monitored by a U.S. spy satellite.
However, Monday, U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan Hilferty, said he did not give the reports about bin Laden's location much credence.
"If we knew where he was in Afghanistan, we would go get him and if the Pakistanis knew where he was in Pakistan they would go get him," he said.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, police said they had detained 55 people after a gunman opened fire on a helicopter near the southern city of Kandahar Sunday, killing the Australian pilot and badly wounding two Western passengers.
General Salim Khan, deputy police chief of Kandahar, told Reuters he suspected a senior Taliban official was hiding in the area but declined to give more details.