ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A senior Al Qaeda (search) leader has been seriously wounded and is on the run, Pakistan's military spokesman said Saturday, while claiming that an operation to rid the western border areas of suspected terrorists has been a success.
But observers critical of the massive military sweep called it a political failure, citing the high number of troop casualties and officials' failure to capture any so-called "high-value targets."
Recently gathered intelligence and eyewitness accounts indicate that Al Qaeda commander Tahir Yuldash (search) was badly wounded and is in hiding, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said. He admitted, though, that Pakistani forces are not close to capturing Yuldash.
"He might have slipped away, he's on the run," Sultan said.
Yuldash, also known as Tahir Yuldashev, is the leader of an Uzbek terror group — Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (search) — which Pakistani officials say has been subsumed by Al Qaeda since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
He was previously mentioned as one of two possible "high-value targets" cornered when Pakistan's military began the sweep of South Waziristan on March 16.
Yuldash and his group were responsible for repeated car bombings and kidnappings in Uzbekistan before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a U.S. State Department report said. Since then, the group has fought alongside Al Qaeda and Taliban (search) forces, the report added.
Despite the apparent escape, Sultan said the operation in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal areas had been successful. He said the military had killed 60 suspected militants and captured 163.
The army also took a militant hide-out, complete with communications equipment, underground tunnels and heavy weaponry. Sultan said the operation was in its final stages.
But the heavy casualties have led to disappointment and criticism, especially after President Gen. Pervez Musharraf stoked expectations by saying a prize capture — possibly Yuldash or Al Qaeda No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri — was cornered.
"As a military operation, it did not go well at all," said Talat Masood, a Pakistani military and political analyst. He said that security forces had failed to expect entrenched militant forces.
The lack of preparation left some 50 soldiers and at least a dozen civilians dead, and enflamed passions among religious hard-liners.
Musharraf, a key ally of the United States, has deployed 70,000 troops along the border with Afghanistan since the Sept. 11 attacks in an attempt to prevent cross-border attacks — the first such deployment since Pakistan gained independence from India in 1947.
U.S. and Afghan forces have deployed on the other side of the border as part of a new offensive against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in that country. Musharraf has said some U.S. experts are working with Pakistani troops, but no U.S. military forces have crossed into Pakistan.
Brig. Mahmood Shah, the regional security chief, said Saturday that moving Pakistani troops into the tribal areas and searching homes for suspected militants was only the first part of a larger campaign.
"This will complete the first phase of the operation, after that security forces will carry out operations wherever they get information on the presence of foreigners ... they will not be able to hide from us in Pakistan's tribal areas," Shah said.
Some of Pakistan's fiercely independent Pashtun tribes, who live in Waziristan and other tribal areas, have resisted the army's incursion.
On Friday, a woman found the bodies of eight soldiers, shot at close range with their hands tied behind their backs. The soldiers were abducted March 22 during a rocket attack on a military convoy north of the battle zone. Militants are suspected of holding another 12 soldiers and two government officials hostage.
A tribal elder said on Saturday that the kidnappers have agreed to release the men Saturday night or Sunday. Using tribal elders as intermediaries is one of the army's strategies to avoid future clashes.
The deployment has drawn criticism from Islamic hard-liners and opposition politicians, who have capitalized on widespread anti-U.S. sentiment.
"The operation has also been a failure because it has given the opposition the opportunity to demonstrate and make the point ... that President Musharraf is trying to please the United States," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Musharraf, speaking on Pakistan Television, defended the operation Saturday, insisting that the militants in the tribal areas are a threat to the nation.
"Pakistan is being damaged," he said. "We have tried everything ... we have given amnesty and we have said if you surrender you will not be handed over, you can live here, stay here, but live in peace."
"Nobody surrendered. So what do you do?" Musharraf said. "We have to act and we will act strongly."