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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 March 2004, 17:40 GMT
Waziristan: Bin Laden's hiding place?

By Rahimullah Yusufzai
BBC correspondent in Peshawar

There is growing world attention on the remote Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan as efforts continue to locate Osama Bin Laden and other key al-Qaeda and Taleban suspects.

However, so far no senior al-Qaeda or Taleban figure has been caught in this semi-autonomous area where the Pakistani army beefed up its presence after the US intervention in neighbouring Afghanistan in October, 2001.

There are persistent reports that sympathetic Pashtun tribesmen in the area are providing fugitives with shelter and support.

In the latest government move to pin them down, the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe was fined $95,000 under a local law of collective responsibility.

The tribe's offence was to fail to stop rocket attacks against the Pakistan army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps deployed in South Waziristan.

Relations between tribal elders and the military have been strained recently over the deaths of a number of civilians in a tragic shooting incident blamed on soldiers and described by the government as a case of "mistaken fire."

Following angry complaints from the local community, the government was quick to constitute a three-member committee to inquire into the 28 February incident.

Pakistani soldiers with al-Qaeda suspects on Afghan border
Thousands of troops have been deployed in Waziristan

But the probe is unlikely to satisfy the tribesmen because the committee's three members are military and civil officers who the tribesmen say cannot be expected to give an independent report.

The deaths of the civilians, six of whom were Pakistani tribesmen and six Afghan refugees, has fuelled tension in the area and made it even more difficult for the army to win the hearts and minds of the tribal people while pursuing al-Qaeda and Taleban suspects.

Homes demolished

Pakistan has pursued the classic carrot and stick approach in its seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including South Waziristan, in a bid to seek tribal support for the US-led war on terrorism.

A record number of development projects, some funded by the US, have been initiated in the under-developed tribal region to improve education, health and communication facilities.

But tribes that refuse to cooperate have been punished with the demolition of homes, sealing of shops and business, seizure of vehicles and dismissals from government jobs.

Tribal elders have already delivered 60 out of 123 tribesmen on a wanted list accused of sheltering suspects. They have promised to step up efforts to surrender the rest.

The strategy of the authorities seems to revolve around interrogating the suspects and locating al-Qaeda and Taleban fugitives through information provided by them.

Prisoners Pakistan says are al-Qaeda activists
Pakistan is trying to arrest more al-Qaeda activists

At the same time, the army's Quick Reaction Force, comprising commandoes and equipped with helicopter gunships and artillery, has taken part in four military operations in South Waziristan.

Military spokesmen say that the force killed eight al-Qaeda suspects, including Osama Bin Laden's Arab-Canadian aide Ahmad Saeed Khadar, in one operation last October.

The army has lost 16 soldiers to date in encounters with the militants. Unknown militants have launched rockets against army camps four times in the past two months.

Since the US military intervention in neighbouring Afghanistan in October, 2001 more than 70,000 Pakistani soldiers and militiamen have been deployed throughout Pakistan's tribal areas and along the 2,500 kilometre border with Afghanistan.

The deployment was done first at the request of the US to plug the escape routes of al-Qaeda and Taleban members fleeing across the border first from Tora Bora cave region in December 2001, and later from other Afghan border provinces.

Last July, Pakistani troops - for the first time since Pakistan's creation in 1947 - entered the Tirah valley in Khyber tribal region, the Shawal valley in North Waziristan, and Mohmand agency and extended the writ of the government in these lawless areas.

And now it is South Waziristan that finds itself under the microscope.

Until this operation leads to the capture or death of Osama Bin Laden, South Waziristan looks set to remain prominent in the world's media.

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