Pakistani forces backed by helicopters and paramilitary troops launched an operation to capture fugitive al-Qaida and Taliban suspects in remote border areas Tuesday, sweeping through villages in a region where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.
The searches near the town of Wana, which is near the border with Afghanistan, began just after dawn, as paramilitary and army troops moved into areas where the fugitives are believed to have taken refuge among local tribes.
“An operation has begun near Wana,” said Pakistan’s Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed. “That’s all that I can tell you.”
Paramilitary forces in recent days have boosted security in the lawless border region in Pakistan’s ultraconservative North West Frontier Province. Authorities insist bin Laden is not the military’s immediate target.
On Monday, senior government officials said that the head of the CIA visited Pakistan last month to discuss the hunt for bin Laden as well as ways to fight nuclear proliferation.
“Both sides shared views and information,” an intelligence official, familiar with the talks between CIA Director George Tenet and Pakistani intelligence officials, told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad declined to comment and the Foreign Ministry refused to confirm that Tenet had visited.
The meetings came just days after the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, acknowledged leaking nuclear technology to Libya, North Korea and Iran. News of the scope of Khan’s activities has caused worldwide alarm and embarrassed this South Asian country.
Tenet discussed the implications of the nuclear black market with Pakistani intelligence officials, the official said.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf pardoned Khan on Feb. 5, following his confession. Washington has said the pardon was an internal Pakistani decision, and that it was most concerned with shutting down Khan’s network.
Troops have stepped up patrols in the rugged area border area, placing heavy guns on key roads and taking positions in sandbagged bunkers in the key town of Wana in tribal South Waziristan.
Local government official Mohammed Azam Khan said those suspected of being “foreign terrorists” will be arrested.
“Tribal elders have given us an assurances that no foreign national is now living in their areas, but still we want to satisfy ourselves,” he said. “A house-to-house search will be conducted.”
Pakistan has been a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, and Pakistani security forces have captured more than 500 suspected al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Among the captured are key figures in bin Laden’s terrorist network.
Musharraf escaped two assassination attempts in December which he blamed on al-Qaida. The government has provided no evidence to support his claim.