updated 10/20/2004 2:27:04 PM ET 2004-10-20T18:27:04

About 1,000 Pakistani soldiers backed by helicopter gunships, mortars and artillery Wednesday pounded a mountainous region near the Afghan border where a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who masterminded the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers is believed to be hiding.

The assault targeted the village of Spinkai Raghzai in South Waziristan, a tribal region where the Pakistani army has been hunting Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida associates. But the top military commander in the region said Tuesday it was unlikely bin Laden was hiding in the area, as U.S. authorities suspect.

Abdullah Mehsud, a former prisoner at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who was released in March, had been hiding in the area. The one-legged militant, who is Pakistani, is believed responsible for the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers on Oct. 9. Since returning home, he has taken command of militants in South Waziristan and has forged ties with al-Qaida, Pakistani intelligence officials say.

Also Wednesday, intelligence officials said they had captured a suspected al-Qaida communications expert of Middle Eastern origin whom they identified as Abdul Rahman. Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed confirmed the arrest of a terror suspect, but would not provide further details on when or where he was captured. The man did not appear to be on either the FBI’s most-wanted terror list or a similar Pakistani list.

Mehsud's whereabouts unknown
The assault Wednesday was directed at Spinkai Raghzai, a village about 35 miles northeast of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan. Militants returned fire with mortars and guns but there was no word on casualties. The village is believed to be a Mehsud stronghold, an intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.

But Mehsud’s whereabouts have not been known since last Thursday, when commandos raided a house where five of his men were holding the two Chinese engineers. One of the Chinese was freed but the other was killed in the assault. All five kidnappers were also killed.

Security chiefs then vowed to hunt down Mehsud, who had been hiding in mountains close to the raided house and disappeared after the attack.

“You can’t be sure where he is,” the intelligence official told the Associated Press.

The army has also been hunting bin Laden in South Waziristan, a region bordering Afghanistan. But Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, the top commander in northwest Pakistan, said late Tuesday his forces have found no sign of the terrorist leader.

“Everything is in our view. If Osama bin Laden was there, we would know. He cannot hide there. He is not there,” Hussain told reporters in Peshawar.

U.S. authorities have long said they believe bin Laden is in the rugged tribal region, or just over the border in Afghanistan. But there has been no firm evidence of his whereabouts for nearly three years. Pakistani leaders have gone back and forth on whether they believe the al-Qaida chief is in their territory.

Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, has arrested more than 600 al-Qaida suspects, but no senior figures have been caught in the border region.

Hundreds of militants in region
However, Hussain said there are still hundreds of militants, many suspected of ties to al-Qaida, in the region.

Since March, security forces have killed 246 of them, including 100 foreigners, and arrested 579. About 170 army and paramilitary troops have also been killed in the crackdown, he said.

“Our war against foreign terrorists will continue ... until we are successful. We will rest after the foreign terrorists are eliminated,” he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan told reporters in Islamabad that Pakistan was paying “a heavy price in the war against terrorism.”

“But it is a price worth paying. ... We are against all forms of extremism, and I think we are waging this war in our own interests,” he said.

Also Wednesday, police said they had arrested a Pakistani identified as Arfan Ali Shah, suspected of masterminding the Oct. 6 car bomb blast at a gathering of Islamic radicals in the city of Multan that killed 42 people. The motive for that attack was believed to be sectarian rivalries within Pakistan.

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