Skip to comments.Osama pal trapped
Posted on 03/19/2004 1:28:39 AM PST by Anti-Bubba182
WASHINGTON - The Pakistani military was pounding a mud-walled fortress last night where a "very senior" Al Qaeda leader - possibly Osama Bin Laden's No. 2 - was holding out against a Pakistani siege.
American intelligence officials were cautious about who might be inside the mountain stronghold, but Pakistani sources said they believe it was Bin Laden's top general, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and he may be wounded.
Al-Zawahiri, nearly always at Bin Laden's side during his taunting videotapes, helped create Al Qaeda and was considered the brains behind its operations. His capture or death would be a major blow to the terror network.
The CIA has long suspected Bin Laden was hiding in the area.
Pakistani troops have ringed the mountainside fortress and battled holdouts for the last few days, taking 18 prisoners.
In an effort to end the standoff, Pakistani forces called in air strikes, and shelling went on throughout the night. A Pakistani general reportedly set a deadline of noon local time for the militants to surrender, and the Pakistani Air Force was poised to launch a new assault.
There was some concern that the Al Qaeda fighters might slip away during the night. A Pakistani intelligence source told The Associated Press some prisoners said Al-Zawahiri was injured.
Pakistani troops sweeping the rugged mountain area 30 miles from the Afghan border initially were surprised by the ferocious resistance they encountered when they approached the mud-walled, fortresslike compounds near the town of Wana.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told CNN yesterday that the Al Qaeda fighters appeared to be protecting a "high-value target."
The suspicion was reinforced by Pakistani intelligence agents.
"We have been receiving intelligence and information from our agents who are working in the tribal areas that Al-Zawahiri could be among the people hiding there," a Pakistani military official told the AP.
An unusually upbeat U.S. official with access to intelligence reports agreed, saying, "It would appear that it's a very senior Al Qaeda figure."
"We're not certain who it is yet," the U.S. official told the Daily News. "It may become clearer in the daytime."
"The Pakistanis seem confident, but they're not fighting at night," said another source. "Who knows what they'll find when dawn breaks?"
It was unclear yesterday the degree to which U.S. forces were aiding in the fight.
A Defense Department official said that part of the "additional cooperation" given to Pakistan's military in recent days has been "a lot of intelligence sharing."
Intelligence sources would not say whether U.S. Predator drones were flying over the battleground, though one official replied cryptically, "We are following the situation."
Musharraf has steadfastly denied that U.S. forces are operating within Pakistan, which would inflame the Muslim population of the area.
Thousands of Pakistani troops have been fighting local tribesmen and foreign fighters for days in a major effort to push the Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts out of Pakistan and into the arms of 13,000 U.S. troops on the other side of the mountain border in Afghanistan.
The U.S. force involved in Operation Mountain Storm includes G.I.s from the 10th Mountain Division based at New York's Fort Drum, U.S. Marines, Special Operations Forces and the supersecret Task Force 121.
Task Force 121, which helped nab Saddam Hussein, consists of elite troops from Seal Team Six and Army Delta Force.
Hope the official is upbeat with good reason.
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