Suspected al-Qaida terrorists eluded Pakistani troops during a manhunt in a remote mountain region near the Afghan border that is a possible hideout for Osama bin Laden and other fugitives of the organization.
Pakistani authorities detained 28 tribesmen in the operation, all members of the Wazir tribe, but did not find any of the suspected foreign terrorists they were looking for since the raid was launched Thursday, officials said Friday.
Two paramilitary rangers were killed and two injured when a rocket hit their base camp Thursday in Wana, the administrative center of semiautonomous South Waziristan tribal area, after the raid ended, said Gen. Shaukat Sultan, an army spokesman.
It was unclear who fired the rocket, but Sultan said it was not linked to the operation. The fiercely independent tribesmen often target Pakistani soldiers who venture into their area.
Pakistani officials refused to give details of the operation, but described it as minor, indicating bin Laden and other high-profile al-Qaida members who could be hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghan border were not the targets.
“It was not a high-profile operation,” Sultan said. “It was a search operation.”
Troops backed by helicopters launched the raid before dawn Thursday after authorities received a tip that 15-20 foreign terrorists were seeking refuge in Kalosha, a village near the border with Afghanistan. Three compounds where the suspects were believed to be sheltering were searched and at least one was bulldozed.
Sultan said that troops were still hunting the suspects but refused to give other operational details or confirm any arrests.
A Wana official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that 28 tribesmen had been detained and that elders were demanding their release. Under Pakistani law, an entire tribe is responsible for any crime committed by one of its members and can be punished collectively.
Tribal elders are expected to work with authorities and turn in any criminals. In return, the tribes have autonomy over their affairs.
Another Wana security official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the tribesmen were being questioned about who had been at the compounds.
Some gunfire was exchanged during Thursday’s operation, but it was not clear if it came from the foreign suspects or from local people, the official said.
The operations followed a series of attacks this week in Afghanistan that are suspected of being carried out by Taliban and possibly al-Qaida fighters amid apparent new calls by bin Laden in a taped message for Muslims to attack U.S. forces and their allies.
The closest U.S. base to Wana is at Shkin, across the border in Afghanistan’s troubled Paktika province. A spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul, Lt. Col. Matthew Beevers, said U.S. solders at firebases such as Shkin were carrying out routine operations and watching the border “very closely.”
Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban militia has staged several ambushes, and frequently fires rockets at U.S. bases in the area, with fighters retreating across the border into Pakistan.