Published March 21, 2004
WANA, Pakistan – Fighting between Pakistani troops and suspected Al Qaeda (search) militants ebbed Sunday as tribal elders said they would try to negotiate an end to the largest battle yet against suspected terrorists along the Afghan frontier.
A 25-member council is to begin talks with the militants Monday morning under the protection of a white flag, said Brig. Mahmood Shah, chief of security for the tribal area in South Waziristan province.
Pakistani forces took advantage of Sunday's pause in fighting to search nearby homes. The military believes a "high-value" target is holed up in the besieged area, but it is uncertain if is Al Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri (search), Uzbek militant Tahir Yuldash, or another terrorist.
Some 5,000-6,000 Pakistani forces are fighting 400-500 foreign militants and Yargul Khel tribesmen. Shah speculated the shooting had abated because the militants were conserving ammunition.
"They may be facing a shortage of ammunition. Heavy firing has almost entirely stopped and they are only using light weapons," he said.
Shah said two Chechens were killed trying to break through a military cordon Sunday. The military has arrested more than 100 suspects but has refused to give updates of casualties.
In neighboring Afghanistan (search), U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told The Associated Press the United States was "very encouraged" by the ongoing Pakistani offensive. He said senior Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders were plotting attacks on Afghan and U.S. targets from Pakistan.
"We know several key Taliban figures are there, and there is some sense that some of the remaining Al Qaeda leaders are in the border area on the other side," Khalilzad said.
Shah said fighting would stop Monday morning while the council was negotiating, though he refused to call it a cease-fire. Shooting could still break out because it is a tribal tradition to continue fighting even while negotiations are under way, he said.
The council will be carrying a list of three government demands: that the fighters free 12 soldiers and two government officials taken captive last week; that they hand over tribesmen involved in the fighting; and that they kick out any foreigners or show the military where to track them down.
Shah reiterated a pledge not to turn any captured Pakistanis over to a foreign country, presumably the United States. That promise did not apply to the foreign militants.
Security officials said their prisoners included Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and ethnic Uighurs from China's predominantly Muslim Xinjiang province. They added it is difficult to distinguish the foreigners from locals, as they have often lived in the region for a long time and speak the local Pashto language.
The operation is the largest by Pakistan in its lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan since it threw its support behind the U.S.-led campaign against Al Qaeda. Thousands of tribespeople have fled their homes.
According to local government officials and intelligence officers, about two dozen local people were killed in an attack on five vehicles Saturday. Army spokesman Shaukat Sultan said the vehicles were fired on because they were trying to escape a military cordon.
In a separate incident, at least seven people were killed when their bus was hit by a stray rocket fired by militants, Sultan said. However, locals said it was hit by gunfire and rockets from a Pakistani helicopter.
Tribesman Zain Ullah said 12 of his relatives, including five women, died in the bus attack.
At the hospital in Wana, three miles from the fighting, dozens of victims' relatives wailed and cursed the Pakistani army and President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
"Pakistani soldiers are like beasts," said tribesman Mukhtar Wazir, as he watched three wounded children receive treatment. "Musharraf is evil, Bush is Satan."