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Pakistan: 100 fighters captured in battle

Confusion over whether al-Zawahiri being protected


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Pakistani soldiers guard prisoners in a truck near Wana, Pakistan, on Saturday.
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Pakistanis unsure about 'high value target'

The U.S. is downplaying the possibility of the capture of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

CNN's exclusive video of al-Zawahiri, some of it never before shown.

The Pakistan border is akin to the 'Wild West.'
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AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI

  • Nationality: Egyptian

  • Position: Osama bin Laden's closest adviser

  • Status: Wanted, $25 million reward

  • Background: Medical doctor; founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad; referred to as the "brains of al Qaeda"
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    WANA, Pakistan (CNN) -- Pakistani forces have captured about 100 fighters -- possibly members of al Qaeda -- in a fierce battle in the country's mountainous border region, military officials said.

    However, a Pakistani brigade commander has cast doubt on whether al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was being protected by fighters, as Pakistani officials suggested earlier.

    The commander said it is possible the No. 2 al Qaeda leader is there, but fighters might instead be battling to protect a local criminal or gangster, who possibly escaped.

    Some officials involved in the fighting said they intercepted radio transmissions that indicated the protected individual could be a Chechen or an Uzbek militant.

    In an account posted on the most prominent pro-al Qaeda Internet message site, the Taliban said that al-Zawahiri was safe and not surrounded by Pakistani troops, although it did not say if he had been in the area. The Taliban account added that Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are also safe.

    Pakistan's military brought journalists to Wana in southern Waziristan near the Afghan border, about six miles from the front lines of the ongoing battle with the fighters.

    The military showed the journalists about 30 of the 100 captured fighters, who were in the back of a truck and blindfolded.

    Officials said the fighters will be questioned to determine their nationalities and affiliations. They could be Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens or members of local tribes, military officials said.

    They said Pakistani forces cleared about eight compounds and detained the 100 fighters in those sweeps.

    The fighting has raged for several days in northwestern Pakistan, and government sources said the their troops have suffered significant casualties.

    They said the 300 to 400 possible al Qaeda fighters and allied tribesmen have the high ground, making it easier to defend against the Pakistani troops.

    Helicopter gunships and fighters were expected to pound the mountain peak later Saturday.

    "The mission is to get these people dead or alive," Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told reporters.

    Thousands of Pakistani forces have cordoned off 19 square miles (50 square kilometers) with two lines of defense, officials said.

    Sultan said there is no way for the fighters to escape.

    "That has been effectively sanitized," he told CNN's Aaron Brown in Islamabad. "It has been cordoned and the army should not take long to flush it out."

    When pressed for a timetable, Sultan would only say the battle would be over "very soon."

    Al Qaeda's well-trained and well-equipped fighters were defending their positions with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy gunfire, officials said.

    So far the battle had included little close combat, they said.

    U.S. officials have declined to comment on whether Predator surveillance drones are aloft in the area -- or that spy satellites are focusing attention on it -- but they did say that they are providing any assistance that the Pakistanis have requested.

    For weeks, knowledgeable sources confirmed, a small team of American intelligence professionals and military personnel have been providing real-time intelligence and communications assistance.

    Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has told CNN that the fierce resistance his forces had encountered was a sign that someone was being protected.

    "They are not coming out in spite of the fact that we pounded them with artillery," he said. He did not name the figure being protected, but said it may be a "high-value target."

    Speaking to CNN on Friday morning, Pakistan Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed was wary of providing more details, noting that al Qaeda is monitoring television and newspaper reports.

    "They never surrender, the al Qaeda people," Ahmed said. "They like to fight and they like to die there, so the only thing I can say is, we have to wait and see."

    Al-Zawahiri considered top al Qaeda lieutenant

    Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian national, is considered by U.S. intelligence to be Osama bin Laden's closest adviser. U.S. officials believe bin Laden may be within miles of al-Zawahiri.

    National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said al-Zawahiri's capture would be a "major step forward" in the war on terrorism, but added, "We have to dismantle the entire network, not just one person."

    The United States is offering a $25 million reward for al-Zawahiri. U.S. officials believe if he were captured, they could likely work out a deal with Pakistan to have him turned over to U.S. custody.

    U.S. officials have long said they believe bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are probably in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan.

    The two have slipped away before, surviving a U.S. onslaught on the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in December 2001.


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