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Last Updated: Friday, 3 October, 2003, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
Pakistan gets tough with al-Qaeda

Zaffar Abbas
BBC correspondent in South Waziristan

Pakistani guard with captures al-Qaeda suspects in South Waziristan
The Pakistani army is checking the nationalities of those held
It all started in the early hours of Thursday morning, when scores of troops from Pakistan's elite Quick Response Force encircled six compounds in the Angoor Adda hills where al-Qaeda militants had been hiding.

The region in South Waziristan on the Afghan border is one of seemingly unending mountains with only pockets of residential compounds.

American and Pakistani intelligence suggested al-Qaeda operatives were slipping between the two countries here.

At the end of a 14-hour fire fight, eight suspected militants had been killed and another 18 arrested.

The Quick Response Force (QRF), trained specifically for anti-terrorist operations, had called on the militants to surrender, authorities said, but were answered with heavy gunfire.

The fire was so intense that army Cobra helicopters were called in to fire rockets into the compounds and allow troops on the ground to take better position.

The Pakistani army insisted this was purely its own operation, although throughout the fire fight American helicopters patrolled the Afghan side, perhaps to ensure that none of the militants escaped into Afghanistan.

Tough fighters

The ferocity of the action became apparent when reporters were flown to the site.

Our helicopter landed at Angoor Adda, where we were advised to take a heavily armed escort.

A fire fight was still taking place nearby, Cobra helicopters flew overhead and local tribesmen looked on with a mixture of anger and amazement from their homes.

At the scene of the clash we were shown the bodies of four of the dead militants and a few fighters who had been arrested.

The detained men were blindfolded. A few of had no shirts on, and with their bushy beards and apparel looked to be part of a deceptively rag-tag army.

But they had proved to be tough fighters. The local army commander said some looked like Arabs, a few had central Asian features and others appeared to be Afghans or Taleban.

Later we were stopped by soldiers indicating further bursts of heavy gunfire. It was time to return.

Harsh environment

As the last of the helicopters carrying the reporters was about to leave the area, it was asked to stop by soldiers on the ground.

Pakistani soldiers in South Waziristan
The army insisted the operation was purely its own

An army vehicle drew up carrying a stretcher bearing the body of one of the two Pakistani soldiers killed in the operation. It was put on the same helicopter to be flown to Bannu. The military operation had not been without a price.

But despite the two deaths, and the two Pakistani troops wounded, the operation marked a successful launch of the QRF in what was a harsh environment.

South Waziristan's rugged and highly conservative tribesmen do not care about the Afghan border and consider both sides of the so-called Durand Line as their homeland.

Most have great sympathy for hardline Islamists, particularly the Taleban.

But military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan said that if anyone had any doubts about Pakistan's sincerity in eliminating suspected terrorists from its territory, it should be dispelled by the QRF in action in South Waziristan.

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