Pakistan: Zawahiri hunt just a 'guess'|
By David J. Lynch, USA TODAY
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Hopes that Osama bin Laden's second-in-command faced imminent capture faded Sunday as an armed standoff in this country's tribal region headed for its fifth day.
Pakistani officials hinted late last week that Ayman al-Zawahiri, 52, an Egyptian doctor and Islamic militant regarded as an architect of al-Qaeda's Sept. 11 attacks in the USA, was cornered in the mountainous South Waziristan district. But asked Sunday whether the government had evidence of Zawahiri's presence in the semi-autonomous tribal belt, Mehmood Shah, the head of security in the combustible Northwest Frontier Province, was unequivocal.
"No. We have no indication. Our guess was based on the amount of resistance we faced and the number of foreign fighters," Shah said during an interview in his office here. "Later on, many people started guessing names, and that's how his name came up."
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, told CNN on Sunday that the intensity of the fighting indicated a "high-value target." He added, "We've made it absolutely clear that we do not know the identity of the high-value target that might be there."
The Pakistani army's plunge into the fiercely independent tribal zone represents the government's most aggressive anti-terrorism effort to date. But fighting in the area near the Afghan border between more than 5,000 Pakistani soldiers and a force of 400 to 500 al-Qaeda and Taliban militants cooled Sunday.
The Pakistani military called a truce Sunday to give tribal leaders a chance to meet with the militants to try to negotiate a surrender. Twenty-five tribal leaders are scheduled to carry the governments' demands — the release of 14 captives and surrender of foreign gunmen — today into the 20-square-mile area surrounded by Pakistani forces, Shah said. If there is no agreement within a few hours, the army intends to mount a final assault.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ignited speculation that an al-Qaeda leader might be among the fighters during a CNN interview Thursday. Musharraf spoke of a "high-value target." Other officials now say the terrorist could be a Chechen or an Uzbek. The army killed two Chechen fighters Sunday as they tried to break through military lines, Shah said.
He conceded that militants could have slipped through the military cordon surrounding Wana. "As time is passing, expectation (of capturing Zawahiri) is dying down. It's lowering," Shah said. "This 'high-value target' is being blown out of proportion."