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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 March, 2004, 10:21 GMT
Elders try to end Pakistan battle
Suspected militant held by Pakistan soldiers
More than 100 militants and tribesmen have been arrested
Pakistani tribal elders have been continuing to try to secure the release of 14 officials and soldiers captured during a nine-day army offensive.

The officials were taken at the start of the operation in South Waziristan in which about 30 soldiers have died.

The army operation is aimed against al-Qaeda and Taleban suspects and tribesmen sheltering them.

On Wednesday, four rockets hit the north-western town of Peshawar in what appeared to be a retaliatory attack.

Tribal elders have been trying for three days to secure the release of the officials and soldiers.

One of the elders involved in the attempt, Malik Bakhan, told Reuters: "We're forming a team to try to identify areas where the missing people can be found. We'll also hold a jirga [tribal council] at which we will take some important decisions."

Police killed

The Pakistani military says it has surrounded hundreds of suspected militants in mud-walled compounds, although officials believe some might have escaped.

More than 100 tribesmen and foreigners have been arrested in the operation, the army says.

The rocket attack on Peshawar fuelled fears that opposition to the government's operation might generate violence in other parts of Pakistan.

At least three people were hurt by the rockets late on Tuesday in Peshawar, about 200 km (125 miles) northeast of Wana, which is at the centre of the fighting.

Also on Tuesday, a bomb near a police post in Bannu, 150km southwest of Peshawar, killed three policemen and a civilian.

Between 5,000 and 7,500 troops are tackling around 400 suspected militants and their tribal supporters.

It is the largest army operation in the tribal areas since Pakistani independence in 1947.

Day of protest

Islamic political parties and tribal elders strongly oppose the action.

Pakistani soldiers in the Wana operation
The army vows to continue until all militants surrender

Bazar Gul, president of the tribal organisation the Khyber Union, said: "There is a possibility of a tribal rebellion if the government continues with such operations in the tribal zones."

Hundreds of protesters have rallied in Peshawar this week shouting "Stop the Wana operation" and "Down with America".

The Islamist coalition the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which is the main power in North West Frontier Province, is planning a national day of protest on Friday against the Wana operation.

However, an army spokesman said it would continue pounding the area with artillery until all the militants surrendered.

Earlier it was alleged that a senior al-Qaeda member was among those trapped, but the authorities said on Monday that he may have escaped through a number of tunnels.

Officials have been downplaying speculation that al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahri could be trapped, saying it is more likely to be a senior Uzbek or Chechen militant.

US-led forces are backing the Pakistani operation by patrolling the area on the Afghan side of the border.

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