ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan has arrested at least five Al Qaeda-linked (search) terrorists who were plotting suicide attacks on government leaders and the U.S. Embassy, officials announced Saturday.
Security forces captured five or six suspects — one Egyptian, the others Pakistani — in the past week across the country, and seized some weapons, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters.
He said authorities were hunting for four to five other suspects, and that those already detained had "wanted to kill hundreds of innocent people" and cause unrest in Pakistan.
Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayyat (search) told The Associated Press, however, that a "gang" of a dozen suspects was captured.
He said the group been planning suicide attacks on "important personalities," and that it wanted to hit the official residence of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search), Parliament and the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Islamabad, as well as Army House in the neighboring city of Rawalpindi.
They also wanted to target some government ministers, he said.
"This is a gang of suicide bombers, and our security agencies have done a remarkable job by foiling this plot," Hayyat said, adding that those captured were "definitely they are linked to Al Qaeda."
In the past five weeks, Pakistan — a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism — has captured more than 60 terror suspects, including some key Al Qaeda operatives, officials have said.
Days ago, authorities said they'd foiled a plot by terrorists to sabotage last weekend's Independence Day celebrations in Islamabad, making at least two arrests.
Hayyat said that some of the suspects arrested in the past week had links with Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a senior cleric and head of a religious school in Islamabad. He said security agencies seized missiles, rockets, detonators, electronic surveillance equipment and other ammunition planned for use in attacks — including on Independence Day.
The officials confirmed the identity of only one of the suspects: a Pakistani, Farrukh Usman, arrested at the religious school in the capital.
Details of the plot were announced as Pakistani troops backed by artillery and aircraft attacked two suspected terrorist hide-outs near the rugged Afghan border, killing and wounding a number of militants, said Pakistan army and security officials.
The attack was launched near Shakai in the South Waziristan tribal region, scene of several military counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda fugitives and renegade tribesmen in recent months.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told state-run television that Pakistani troops had "killed and wounded some foreign miscreants" on Saturday in an exchange of fire near Shakai, but gave no details. He denied that a major new military operation was underway.
An intelligence official in Islamabad said on condition of anonymity that the troops had surrounded two hide-outs of foreign terrorists and their local supporters, who had reportedly used light weapons to attack the army.
In South Waziristan's main town, Wana, local journalist Allah Noor Wazir cited residents as saying three Pakistani fighter planes had launched a 45-minute attack on Saturday morning in a forested area near Shakai, where militants were believed to be hiding. Officials couldn't confirm the report.
The last major military operation in South Waziristan ended in June, leaving more than 100 dead. Sporadic clashes have continued, with militants frequently launching rockets against security forces.
On Thursday, Pakistani troops killed a foreign militant, an Uzbek, in an exchange of fire near Shakai. They also seized some weapons.
Pakistan has been hunting remnants of Al Qaeda and Taliban in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where hundreds of militants, including Arabs and Central Asians, have taken refuge since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
In March, a top Uzbek militant named Tahir Yuldash was injured in an army operation in the region, but he got away and remains at large.
Officials say the military operations have forced some Al Qaeda operatives to flee the area and move elsewhere in Pakistan. A number of those arrested in the terror crackdown over the past month are believed to have moved from South Waziristan.
Among them was Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian wanted in the 1998 U.S. embassies in east Africa that killed more than 200 people. He was captured in eastern Punjab province last month.
A series of deadly attacks, which authorities say were masterminded by Al Qaeda, have targeted top government figures in recent months.
On July 30, a suicide bomber attacked prime minister designate Shaukat Aziz near Islamabad, killing nine people. Aziz was unhurt. Musharraf narrowly escaped injury in two huge bombings that killed 17 in Rawalpindi in December.