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Quraishi: Pakistanis say al Qaeda #2 surrounded

CNN Islamabad bureau chief Ash-har Quraishi

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Pakistani forces have surrounded a "high-value" target believed to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant in al Qaeda, near the Afghan border. The troops reported fierce resistance from al Qaeda fighters.

CNN Islamabad bureau chief Ash-har Quraishi spoke to CNN anchor Miles O'Brien from the Pakistani capital.

QURAISHI: Hello, Miles.

We're just getting confirmation now from intelligence sources that Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri is among those being hunted at this time. He is surrounded right now by Pakistani paramilitary, as well as army forces in the area known as South Waziristan.

Now this is an operation that's been ongoing for a couple of days now. They've been met by heavy resistance.

Now let's go back a little bit, Miles. Back on Tuesday, paramilitary forces went into an area known as Kalusha in South Waziristan. They were basically ambushed there with gunfire from all around, which ended up killing about 15 or so paramilitary troops, and more than two dozen other suspected terrorists were killed.

Now the operation was reinitiated and pushed up early in the morning. Pakistani military forces aided by helicopter gunships called in, and they went after this area, they surrounded it, cordoned it off, basically a 360-degree perimeter has been set around this 20 to 30 kilometer area, that they have basically surrounded this area, they are pounding it with artillery, heavy artillery, and they're being met with heavy resistance from these fighters, which is why the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf earlier this evening, talking to Aaron Brown, said that the corps commander on the ground believes that they had a high-value target in the area, which would explain why they were being met with such intense resistance and strength at this point.

Now we are getting confirmation from intelligence sources here in Pakistan that Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No. 2, is within these fighters and is also fighting with them.

O'BRIEN: Ash-har, you say there is a 360-degree perimeter around there. This is very rough terrain, difficult country, a country that is well known by al Qaeda and its operatives. Are your military sources fairly certain they have this area tightly sealed off?

QURAISHI: Well, they do. Now President Musharraf earlier said it was foolish for the Frontier Corps to go in by themselves.

Now what's been going on here is the tribal elders have been brought in earlier to try and negotiate peaceful surrenders of these al Qaeda fighters and the tribesmen who are harboring them in this area of Pakistan. So that is the first line of defense. Now after that, the frontier going in, and now the heavy duty army has come in.

Now there is a quick reaction force here in Pakistan that's been put into place, specifically to respond to these kinds of situations. They go in with the helicopter gunships, with their specially trained commandos, who go in, they drop in, they pound the area, they take who they can alive and they get out.

So the feeling right now is that they've been holed in this area for quite some time now. They've cordoned the area off.

We don't have an indication as to how many soldiers are on the ground, but the indication is that it's very tight. It's become very difficult for these fighters to get out. Before they began the fight, now, Miles, I have to point out, that they did evacuate the area. Women and children were brought out of the area so that the intensity of this fighting would not sustain a lot of collateral damage, and that they wouldn't have to be too careful in what kinds of tactics they were using on the ground there.

O'BRIEN: So, Ash-har, is there a sense from the people you talked with in the Pakistani military that it's just a matter of time then?

QURAISHI: That's exactly what we're hearing now. This evening, speaking to senior military officials, they say that it's very difficult to get into this area now, because they have cordoned it off. The fighting's been going on for some time. We expect there will be quite a large number of casualties. They haven't been able to get into this area yet. They're still holding their positions. This operation is ongoing, and it may be days before they're able to get through the casualties and get an idea of what kind of damage is really done in this area and who exactly was in there, and as we understand it right now, though, they say that Ayman al-Zawahiri is inside this area in South Waziristan where this heavy operation is taking place.

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