Pakistan's army claimed Monday to have routed Taliban militants in a stronghold near the Afghan border but turned up no sign of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri.
The government ordered a halt to the operation to allow some of the 300,000 families who fled airstrikes and combat in the Bajur region to return home for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
However, officials reported that troops fired on militants seen moving toward a security post late Monday, and that stray mortar shells killed at least two civilians.
U.S. officials recently stepped up calls for Pakistan to put more pressure on militants using bases in its remote tribal areas to mount crossborder attacks also on NATO and government troops in Afghanistan.
Pause may allow militants to regroup
Some analysts have warned that the pause in the weeks-long Bajur operation would only allow the militants to regroup.
Pakistani officials said Monday, however, that their forces had killed some 560 Pakistani and foreign fighters and thwarted a push to make Bajur into a militant fortress.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said about 20 members of the security forces died and 30 were missing.
"In our view, the back has been broken," army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told The Associated Press. "Main leaders are on the run and the people of the area are now openly defying whatever the militants had achieved there."
Officials including former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf have mentioned Bajur as a possible hiding place for bin Laden or al-Zawahri.
Abbas said many foreigners were reportedly in Bajur before the operation, but that many had probably fled to Afghanistan or other parts of Pakistan's northwest and that the operation had turned up no trace of the al-Qaida chiefs.
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said Monday that authorities also received a report that al-Zawahri's wife had been in the neighboring tribal region of Mohmand.
Pakistani forces stormed the location but didn't find the couple, he said, without indicating when the raid took place. He said al-Zawahri moved between Mohmand and the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Paktika.
Accusations of 'inefficiency'
Malik accused the Afghan government of "inefficiency" for letting many of the estimated 3,000 militants who had gathered in Bajur flee over the frontier.
Pakistan's five-month-old government initially held peace talks with Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants living in mountainous border regions.
It has struck several accords, some of which remain in place, but has also turned to force against hard-liners in Bajur and the nearby Swat region, pounding suspected hideouts with helicopter gunships and fighter jets.
According to Malik, the three weeks of fighting in Bajur had killed an uncertain number of civilians and badly damaged several villages. Of about 500,000 people who fled, many of them to government relief camps, about 30,000 had returned by Monday.
Some, just scraping by, said they could not afford to make the journey home for Ramadan, which begins Tuesday in Pakistan, and would instead remain in sweltering, mosquito-infested tents.
Home better than tents for some
Others were gathering up their few belongings and piling into buses and pickup trucks.
"God knows what will happen once we get there," said Bakhsh Ali Khan, who was heading with his wife and five children to their home in Pashat, an area of Bajur. "But we're living in shambles here. Our family has been separated, we do not have enough food, proper clothing or beds."
Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar, who Abbas claimed had been put to flight, was still able to tell an AP reporter on Monday by telephone that he welcomed the lull in fighting.
However, he said militants would not lay down their arms as demanded.
Defense analyst Talat Masood said the suspension of military operations in Bajur risked squandering any gains made by security forces so far.
"Definitely it will give a fair chance to the militants to regroup, consolidate their strength and stage a comeback," he said. "This has happened in the past."
Sgt. Christopher Peavy, a spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said that while it was too soon to tell if infiltration had decreased, "we are encouraged by the operations that Pakistan's military is conducting."