WANA, Pakistan – A top Uzbek rebel leader wanted by authorities in his home country might be hiding in the tense tribal region that forms the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a senior Pakistani general said Saturday.
Tahir Yuldash (search), political leader of the rebel Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (search), was wounded in March when the army raided a suspected al-Qaida hide-out on the outskirts of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan (search), said Army Maj. Gen. Niaz Khattak.
But Yuldash managed to escape along with hundreds of other militants.
"Yes, Tahir Yuldash might be hiding here, and we have some information about it," Khattak, who is responsible for military operations in the North and South Waziristan tribal regions, told reporters in Wana.
Khattak also said the army had no information about the whereabouts of Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, who are thought to be taking refuge in the region.
During the March operation, the army said it killed 63 militants and arrested 163 foreign and local suspects. The majority of the tribesmen were released after promising to stay away from foreign militants.
At the time, Uzbekistan had requested "detailed information" about Uzbeks who were captured or killed.
Khattak said "about 600 to 700 foreign militants are still hiding or on the run" in the country's tribal regions. "We are chasing them, we will kill or capture them," he said.
Khattak also showed the passport of a Jordanian terror suspect, Abdullah al-Haj. The passport, he said, was among items seized after the June 11 raid at the home of a local tribesman, Eda Khan.
Khattak said Khan's home was being used by al-Qaida men as a safe house. He said Khan was arrested and is being interrogated.
According to the private Geo television, al-Haj might have links with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a wanted terrorist who has been targeting U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.
The report said authorities also found letters written in Arabic, a camera, a computer and a diary of al-Haj, who was an explosive expert. Al-Haj had also spent time in Afghanistan, the report said.
Khattak refused to speculate on whether al-Haj and al-Zarqawi were connected. "Maybe our intelligence agencies know about it, but I have no details," he said.
"According to his passport, Abdullah al-Haj was born in Zarqa in Jordon and he came to Pakistan in 1999," Khattak said. He would not say whether he thought al-Haj was still alive.
The briefing came hours after five mortar shells were fired near a housing compound for Pakistani paramilitary troops in Wana. No one was injured, officials said.
Some tribesmen in the region insisted those killed by the army in recent operations were not terrorists. "They were not terrorists. They were mujahedeen (holy warriors)," said Inayatullah Wazir, a resident of Shakai.
Khattak gave no specific details about the army's recent losses. Reporters at an army base in Wana saw troops taking a wounded soldier to a nearby helicopter.
"Casualties do happen when the army is involved in an operation," Khattak said adding, "(the militants) operational spaces have been reduced a considerable degree."
Also Saturday, Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultana said there were reports of fresh clashes between militants and troops in parts of South Waziristan.
Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism and has deployed about 70,000 troops in its tribal regions to capture terror suspects.
On Thursday, the government renewed an offer to foreign militants and their local supporters to surrender in return for amnesty. There was no response from the suspects, who have previously rejected such offers.