Al-Qaida pursuit crosses borders©Associated Press
April 26, 2002
WASHINGTON -- U.S. government personnel are searching for al-Qaida fighters in the rugged tribal regions of northwest Pakistan, and the American military is set to send in troops to join the hunt, officials said Thursday.
The United States and Pakistan reached an agreement several weeks ago allowing American military operations on Pakistani soil, U.S. officials said. This will allow Americans to hunt in a suspected al-Qaida haven previously closed to them -- tribal areas that are traditional rallying points for fighters fleeing Afghanistan.
The operations carry considerable risk, physically for the Americans and politically for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who faces a referendum on Tuesday to extend his term as president for five years. He has defied strong anti-American sentiment to support President Bush in countering terrorism.
Pakistan's tribal belt is ruled by deeply conservative and fiercely independent tribesmen who swear little allegiance to anyone but their tribal elders and to laws laid out by tradition and the tenets of Islam. Tribesmen who live in high-walled compounds have warned against U.S. soldiers on their territory.
Publicly, Islamabad denied any knowledge of U.S. operations.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, traveling to Central Asia, would not comment about what was happening in Pakistan.
"We do not characterize what other countries are doing or what we are doing in other countries," he said. "Pakistan has, from the outset, been enormously helpful and cooperative in the global war on terror."
He acknowledged that U.S. agencies outside the Defense Department were involved in the apprehension in Pakistan last month of Abu Zubaydah, bin Laden's senior lieutenant, who is under interrogation at an undisclosed location.
Another official said American soldiers had not been wounded, as the Washington Post reported Thursday.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan reportedly had chased al-Qaida fighters across the border sporadically over the past few weeks, but that was separate from the covert operation being planned.
Covert U.S. soldiers are searching for pockets of militants along the border region, the Post said.
U.S. troops based on the Afghanistan side of the mountainous frontier have been attacked several times a week over the last month and have been in several fire fights with al-Qaida militants, the Post said.
U.S. forces have found only small pockets of al-Qaida forces since the end of a weeklong ground and air assault in the Shah-e-Kot valley south of Kabul, the Afghan capital. Since then, the military has been quiet on whether U.S. forces are operating in Pakistan, where many al-Qaida fighters are believed to have fled.
U.S. officials on Wednesday had said the Bush administration was considering sending U.S. advisers to work with Pakistani troops in the pursuit of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in Pakistan.
At issue is a strategy to deal with hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban militants who are believed to have taken refuge in a lawless region near the Afghan border.
One official said Pakistan was reluctant to acknowledge contacts with the United States about joint military cooperation in tracking down terrorists out of concern for public opinion.
Afghanistan's interim regime on Thursday freed the first of hundreds of Pakistani prisoners locked away for months in cramped, squalid cells because they came to help the deposed Taliban regime fight a "holy war" against America.
The first 30 Pakistanis -- elderly men with long white beards and younger men who were wounded -- filed into a Pakistani military plane and flew home guarded by heavily armed soldiers.
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From the AP