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On the trail of bin Laden

There may be a limit to how much cooperation Pakistan can offer.

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Osama Bin Laden

(CNN) -- U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials believe al Qaeda terror boss Osama bin Laden may be hiding in the remote tribal areas near the Pakistani-Afghan border.

But confirming those suspicions poses several challenges.

The tribal belt of Northwest Pakistan for centuries has resisted outside intervention and remains governed by local Islamic laws and traditions.

The terrain is treacherous and for residents the main sources of income are smuggling and the arms trade.

But somewhere within the mountains in South Waziristan, intelligence sources believe bin Laden may be hiding.

"He has the advantage of geography, of terrain, of a tribal society which will give him cover and which will show him the loyalty. So, unless somebody betrays him or by chance he is caught, it may be very difficult," says defense analyst Lt. General (retired) Talat Masood.

Coalition forces in Afghanistan have been on bin Laden's trail for two and a half years in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

For months, Islamabad has been putting pressure on tribal leaders not to give shelter to al Qaeda or Taliban remnants believed to be in the area and possibly regrouping for new operations in Afghanistan.

There have been various military raids, but the most recent Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan has a more determined feel about it and coincides with a U.S. operation on the other side of the border.

It is the first time in more than a century Pakistani forces have ventured into an area of their country that has never really been under their control.

Pro-al Qaeda

For months, Islamabad has been putting pressure on tribal leaders not to give shelter to al Qaeda.

"They've gone in with a steam roller in an area which is extremely pro-Taliban and pro-al Qaeda," explains internationally known author and journalist Ahmed Rashid.

For months the army has been increasing its presence, with about 70,000 troops now deployed in the region.

While the threat of force has yielded few catches, it has pressured some tribal elders into forming their own militias to search for al Qaeda militants who might be hiding amidst their own ranks.

"I don't believe there are al Qaeda members in this area but we will find them if they are here," one tribal elder told CNN.

This week's operation was among the bloodiest. At least 39 people have been killed so far, among them 15 soldiers.

Pakistani military officials say 24 militants have been killed and another 18 captured with most of the dead or detained being "foreign fighters" and not Pakistanis. (Full story)

It is hoped the Pakistani operation will act as a hammer and anvil with U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan.

As the U.S. military pounds al Qaeda and Taliban fighters on the Afghan side, military planners are hoping Pakistani forces will block the militants from crossing over the border.

But it's going to take a lot more than firepower to get results.

Azam Warsak in South Waziristan -- among the villages to resist outside intervention for centuries.

"What we are seeing right now is a huge intelligence effort similar to the one that captured Saddam Hussein, which involved hundreds of people on the American side. It wasn't just a few special forces wandering around and I think for that they need a great deal of Pakistani cooperation," Rashid said.

But there may be a limit to how much cooperation Pakistan can offer.

President Pervez Musharraf has refused to allow U.S. troops on Pakistani soil for fear the move might fuel an explosive reaction in a region highly opposed to U.S. intervention.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Pakistan this week for talks with Musharraf, sidestepped a question about whether U.S. forces would ever enter Pakistan in "hot pursuit" of terror suspects fleeing from Afghanistan.

"Nothing would be done along the border that is not done in coordination with both sovereigns," Powell said.

Both countries are desperate to remove the scourge of terrorists from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

CNN Islamabad Bureau Chief Ash-har Quraishi contributed to this report.

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