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Pakistan: Offensive Against Suspected Militants In South Waziristan Ends

Pakistan has started withdrawing its troops from the tribal region near the border with Afghanistan after a major offensive. No major Al-Qaeda or Taliban militants appear to have been captured or killed, however, and analysts say the operation cannot be termed a success.

Prague, 30 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan is withdrawing its troops from the tribal region of South Waziristan, where they have been battling suspected foreign fighters with links to Al-Qaeda for the past two weeks.

The military says it is withdrawing its forces from the area but that some troops will remain "at different locations in different garrisons." Meanwhile, on the Afghan side of the border, U.S. troops are engaged in their own hunt for suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

Though Pakistani officials were initially optimistic, they admitted today that no major Al-Qaeda figures have been captured or killed in the offensive, while its forces suffered significant losses. Analysts say the Pakistani operation cannot be called a success.

"Very clearly in this group, in [the area] where the fighting is taking place, there don't seem to have been any Arabs. These were all people from Central Asia, from the former Soviet republics or local tribesmen."
Yesterday, a Pakistani military spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sultan, claimed that a top Al-Qaeda intelligence chief had been killed and that a senior Uzbek militant was wounded and on the run.

"Mr. Tahir Yuldashev, who is number 10 in the Al-Qaeda hierarchy, he was injured along with his associates, and he is hiding somewhere. It has also been confirmed by the intelligence sources that Mr. Abdullah, who was the chief of the Al-Qaeda intelligence -- Mr. Abdullah, that is the only name that I have -- he was the chief of the intelligence of Al-Qaeda, [and] he was killed," Sultan said.

Today, Sultan said the militant who was killed was of a much lower rank than had been believed.

"Now I can confirm that he was only the head of Al-Qaeda's intelligence in Wana," the main town in South Waziristan, Sultan said. He blamed the mistake on faulty intelligence.

Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah is on the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists, indicted for his alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed more than 200 people.

Pakistan's 12-day operation -- which involved some 7,500 troops -- was its biggest offensive to date in the conservative, semi-autonomous tribal region. The military says more than 60 militants were killed and 160 captured -- about 100 of them foreigners. But the army says 62 of its soldiers also were killed in the offensive.

Meanwhile, authorities today announced they had found the bodies of two Pakistani officials who had been captured by militants. The two disappeared along with 12 paramilitary troops on 16 March. The soldiers were released on 28 March after negotiations with local tribal leaders.

Regional security expert Ahmed Rashid tells RFE/RL that it is difficult to judge what is happening in South Waziristan because the Pakistani military limits access to the region by independent journalists and human rights organizations.

But he says it seems unlikely that any high-ranking Al-Qaeda members were in the area in the first place.

"Very clearly in this group, in [the area] where the fighting is taking place, there don't seem to have been any Arabs. These were all people from Central Asia, from the former Soviet republics or local tribesmen. There does not seem to have been any Arabs, and we well know that Osama bin Laden [and Al-Qaeda number two] Ayman al-Zawahri will never use non-Arabs as their bodyguards. So, it's clear that in an area where [there are] only Central Asian [fighters], it is very unlikely that you're going to find bin Laden," Rashid said.

Rashid says the majority of the suspected militants were likely local tribesmen. He says Yuldashev, the Uzbek militant, was likely in the area but escaped.

"The military yesterday said that it thinks now that on the first day of the battle in the village of Kalosha, when several small pickup trucks managed to get out of the cordon, in one of these trucks there was Tahir Yuldashev. He was wounded, and then the truck was hit. He was wounded. And he was then taken out of the truck and he escaped across the mountains," Rashid said.

The Pakistani military says Yuldashev had been living in the tribal area for the past two years.

Rashid says the raid has succeeded in provoking the anger of the local population and the government is facing a severe backlash in the area.

Last week, Pakistan's opposition parties protested against the operation in the tribal area, which has never been under the control of the central government.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this story.)