ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani security forces have arrested 402 suspected Al Qaeda members during months of raids on hide-outs and heightened security along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday.
Most of the men are Arabs and were turned over to the United States, Interior Ministry officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Some of those arrested are still in Pakistani custody, the officials said.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Al Qaeda and Taliban members are believed to have fled Afghanistan and sought refuge in Pakistan with the help of Pakistani extremist groups.
Pakistani and U.S. security forces have conducted a number of joint raids on suspected Al Qaeda hide-outs throughout the country, particularly in remote provincial areas which U.S. authorities describe as staging areas for many fugitives attempting to regroup in Pakistan.
Among those arrested was one of Usama bin Laden's top lieutenants, Abu Zubaydah, possibly the third-ranking figure in Al Qaeda. Zubaydah was shot and wounded on March 28 during a joint U.S.-Pakistani raid on an Al Qaeda hide-out in the industrial city of Faisalabad. He is in U.S. custody.
But U.S. officials have expressed concern that Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants from Afghanistan have been able to cross into Pakistan, despite the deployment of thousands of Pakistani troops in the semiautonomous border tribal areas.
On Tuesday, Pakistan's interior minister insisted the arrests had been carried out exclusively by Pakistani authorities, dismissing suggestions that U.S. forces had played a critical role.
"Soldiers of no country, including America, are taking part in ongoing operations against terrorists," Moinuddin Haider said. "Only our security agencies are involved in such operations."
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has said the raids show that Pakistani authorities are capable of hunting down Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives without cross-border "hot pursuit" operations by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
However, limited numbers of U.S. special operations troops are believed working with Pakistani authorities in the search for Al Qaeda members who took refuge here.
Haider's comments came one day after two rockets hit a deserted area near a building in the country's remote tribal region, where U.S. special forces are believed to be staying.
According to officials at the border town of Miran Shah in northwestern Pakistan, both rockets missed their target and caused no damage. It was not immediately known who fired the missiles.