ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan has stepped up security along the Afghan border ahead of new operations against Al Qaeda (search) and Taliban in the tribal belt where Usama bin Laden (search) may be hiding, Pakistani military and intelligence sources said Sunday.
The operation will be the fourth of its kind since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press. It would center on suspected Taliban (search) and Al Qaeda men who Pakistan believes have married Pakistani women and are living in the tribal areas — the remote and historically autonomous regions that have never really been brought under the control of Pakistan's central government.
It will be conducted in the Waziristan (search) tribal region in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, intelligence sources said.
Bin Laden was not the immediate target of the operation, said one senior Pakistani intelligence official. But he said the hope was that the operation would net clues that would ultimately lead to the "biggest evil."
"Right now, we are not chasing bin Laden, but the purpose of all past efforts was to capture him," he said. "We are now tracking Al Qaeda fugitives to get clues from them about him."
He declined to give any other details.
Security was stepped up in the tribal region so that no one could escape arrest, military sources told the AP, also on condition of anonymity.
The operation comes amid rising speculation in the local press that the U.S. military is planning a spring offensive in Afghanistan to capture bin Laden.
Many of the reports have speculated that the operation would spill over into Pakistani areas bordering Afghanistan, where the inhabitants are linked by language and culture to Afghan Pashtuns, the ethnic group that was the Taliban's power base.
Britain's Sunday Express newspaper reported that bin Laden and a small group of followers had been "boxed in" by U.S. and British special forces in the mountains on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Citing "two senior American sources" — a senior Republican and an intelligence source — the newspaper said bin Laden was within a 10-by-10-mile area being monitored by a U.S. spy satellite.
Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press on Saturday that to his knowledge bin Laden has not been "boxed in."
"I do not have any such information," he said.
Pakistan has been a key ally of the United States in war on terror and its security forces have captured more than 500 Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Among the captured are key figures in bin Laden's terrorist network.
Earlier this week, the top American general in Afghanistan, U.S. Lt. Gen. David Barno, said that he hoped that efforts by Pakistan, together with a change in U.S. counterinsurgency tactics in Afghanistan, would create a "hammer-and-anvil" effect to trap Al Qaeda fighters between U.S. and Pakistani forces.
Pakistani soldiers and government paramilitaries have been meeting with tribal chiefs for at least six weeks in Pakistan and threatening them with "destruction of homes and things of that nature" unless they cooperate, Barno said.
A deadline has been given to tribal elders to surrender these people to the army. Authorities have promised that they will not be extradited if they surrender and hand in their weapons.
The planned operation in Waziristan mirrors earlier ones. The first took place in Wana, a remote tribal region along the border with Afghanistan in June 2002. It failed to net any major Al Qaeda leader but several Pakistani soldiers died.
The army again sent troops to the same region in October 2003 in an effort to arrest bin Laden's top associates. A similar operation was again conducted in January during which Ahmad Said al-Kadr (search), a suspected Al Qaeda financier, was killed along with seven suspects.