ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Acting on U.S. intelligence, Pakistani soldiers raided an Al Qaeda hideout near the Afghan border, setting off a gunbattle that killed 10 Pakistani soldiers and two suspected members of the terror network, officials said Wednesday.
A 15-year-old foreign boy was captured following the four-hour battle, which began late Tuesday nearana, Pakistani officials said. However, most of the fighters, believed to be Chechens, escaped in the darkness early Wednesday, military and police officials said.
Pakistani helicopters flew over the area, about 190 miles west of Islamabad, throughout Wednesday, searching for the Al Qaeda suspects. Pakistan sent hundreds more troops to hunt down the fugitives responsible for the Pakistani army's first known combat deaths in the war against terrorism.
The United States put U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan on alert to help in the firefight in case Pakistan requested it, but it had not, said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"We're in this fight together," he told a Pentagon press conference. "We're partners in this together."
"While U.S. forces were not involved in the fight, we appreciate the Pakistan army's efforts to locate the Al Qaeda, and our condolences go out to the families of those members of the Pakistani army who lost their lives in that endeavor," Myers said.
Pakistani army officials estimated between 40 and 45 Al Qaeda fighters were still hiding in the area after the raid, said Pakistani officers reached by telephone in Wana, a tribal area whose leaders have been sympathetic to the Taliban.
The Al Qaeda members are believed to be Chechens who fled to Wana after the U.S. military's Operation Anaconda in southeastern Afghanistan in March. The nationality of the captured foreign teen-ager was not made public.
Pakistani forces have been operating in the area, located across the border from the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Paktika, since President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ordered them last year to try to intercept Al Qaeda and Taliban members fleeing from U.S. military attacks. U.S. special forces have been helping Pakistani forces in the area, but residents said they saw no U.S. troops during the latest raid.
"In an effort to apprehend the Al Qaeda elements using minimum force due to concern for safety of the civilian population, 10 security persons" were killed, the Pakistani military said in a statement. "A number of Al Qaeda foreign terrorists were also killed."
The statement gave no further details. However, an Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Pakistani troops and paramilitary Frontier Scouts went late Tuesday to a tribal elder's home about 12 miles outside Wana after U.S. intelligence determined Al Qaeda members were hiding there.
The official did not say which U.S. intelligence service — military, FBI or CIA — was involved, but the CIA is thought to have played some operational role in the raid.
A Pakistani officer demanded that the fugitives surrender. Instead, the Chechens opened fire with semiautomatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, triggering a gunbattle that persisted until nearly dawn, the official said.
He said some soldiers were wounded and evacuated by helicopter to nearby hospitals. Troops found uniforms, a mortar and Al Qaeda literature in the house. There was no indication what happened to the tribal elder.
A lawyer reached by telephone in the area said he was leaving a mosque after evening prayers Tuesday when he saw Pakistani armored vehicles and three ambulances headed toward the elder's home.
"Suddenly we heard intense firing," he said on condition of anonymity. "It was heavy for about four hours, then less but there was shooting until dawn."
He said tribal authorities had asked the army to let them try to convince the Al Qaeda fighters to surrender but were told by an officer: "This is not Afghanistan. This is Pakistan." The officer was later killed in the fighting, according to the lawyer.
Most tribal leaders are religious conservatives who feel a responsibility to shelter fellow Muslims and are fiercely protective of their autonomy, which dates back to agreements struck with the British when they ruled the area as part of British India.
"The situation is very tense and most people have closed their shops because of the ongoing search operation in the area," a Wana resident, Mohammed Farooq, said by telephone. He said hundreds of heavily armed troops were swarming through the area looking for the Al Qaeda fighters.
During recent weeks, local government buildings and Pakistani troops have occasionally come under brief rocket and machinegun fire from unknown attackers, but no soldiers have been killed.
U.S. officials estimate that up to 1,000 Al Qaeda fighters still operate in small groups on both sides of the mountainous border area.
The United States considers the Al Qaeda and Taliban presence in Konar and nearby Afghan provinces a significant grouping, but its scope is not fully clear, said a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity. That presence includes Afghan and Arab hard-core fighters and possibly some senior leadership, the official said, declining to provide more details.
On Saturday, Musharraf said Pakistan has arrested about 300 suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the border area, which is largely outside the control of the central government and dominated by local tribal leaders.
Musharraf, however, faces domestic criticism from conservative religious groups who sympathized with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and who consider the war on terrorism to be a Western campaign against Islam.
U.S. and British troops have been scouring border areas in southeastern Afghanistan for weeks looking for Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts. They have found several weapons caches, but few fighters.