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South Asia: Pakistan Clamps Down On Al-Qaeda, Taliban Suspects As Reports Fly Over Bin Laden's Whereabouts

By Kathleen Knox

Pakistani troops have arrested some 20 suspects in an operation aimed at tracking down Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters believed to be hiding in remote tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. This latest offensive comes amid heightened speculation that U.S.-led forces are closing in on Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Prague, 25 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani troops hunting for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters zeroed in yesterday on the Pakistani village of Azam Warsak near the Afghan border.

Some 20 suspects, including a number of foreigners, were arrested in the operation in Pakistan's tribal South Waziristan region.

It's the latest offensive by Pakistani forces in the area and follows the expiration of a deadline for locals to hand over militants.

But the raids also come amid heightened speculation that the U.S. and its allies are closing in on Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who is thought to be hiding in the area straddling the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Britain's "Sunday Express" newspaper this week cited unidentified American sources as saying U.S. and British forces have pinpointed bin Laden to a 16-square-kilometer area along the border.

Pakistani officials dismiss speculation that the latest raids are targeting bin Laden, though Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat say there is a "strong possibility" that senior Al-Qaeda figures like bin Laden and top aide Ayman al-Zawahri are hiding in the region.

"Most of these stories linking some reports that Ayman al-Zawahri and Osama bin Laden have been seen there. They have been witnessed by people. They are merely conjectures and highly speculative. There is no denying the fact that this border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a very porous area, and there could be a possibility of certain high profile elements connected to Al-Qaeda hierarchy. There could be a strong possibility that they could be anywhere in these areas. Although we do feel that there [is] sufficient and strong evidence to the effect that Osama bin Laden and his top henchmen would be somewhere in Afghanistan," Hayat said.

Brian Hilferty, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, plays down reports about bin Laden's location. "If we knew where he was," Hilferty says, "we would go get him."

But other statements suggest the U.S. military is confident bin Laden will be captured soon.

It was Hilferty who boldly stated last month that the U.S. military is "sure" it will capture bin Laden this year. Another spokesman, Matt Beevers, said today that time is running out for bin Laden.

Christopher Langton is a defense expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"If they are so certain that they are closing in on bin Laden, which indicates they know roughly where he is, it's probably not a good thing to make that knowledge public because it would only alert [bin Laden] to that fact. So my feeling is that this has been said partly to [give] more credibility to the U.S. approach in Afghanistan before the [November] U.S. [presidential] elections, but also maybe to encourage the Pakistanis to [make a] greater effort," Langton said.

Richard Evans, a terrorism expert with Jane's military publishing group, is cautious also. He says it's possible the U.S. and Pakistani authorities do, indeed, have accurate intelligence on bin Laden's movements. But he notes it's not the first time bin Laden has been reported to be cornered.

"During [U.S.-led] Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it was thought that bin Laden had been cornered at Tora Bora [at the end of 2001]. And after several days of fierce fighting, when the troops finally got up there, they found he'd managed to slip away. It's been assumed for several months that bin Laden was in the Northwestern Frontier Province of Pakistan, moving around regularly with a small number of bodyguards, having bought off certain tribal leaders in that area to act as a kind of early warning whenever Pakistani or U.S. forces might be drawing near. He's gotten away before. It remains to be seen whether the latest claims -- generally by unnamed officials [quoted] in the media -- have any substance to them," Evans said.

This week, two audio tapes attributed to al-Zawahri gave what some experts interpret as Al-Qaeda's response to the speculation.

On one tape, al-Zawahri threatens new attacks on the U.S. and dismisses a claim by U.S. President George W. Bush that two-thirds of the Al-Qaeda network has been crushed.

Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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