Olive Branch Efforts In Pakistan

Pakistani soldiers with body of a man they claim they killed in combat, near scene of battle against fugitive al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban forces, Wana, South Waziristan, Pakistan, 3-20-04
Hoisting white flags on their vehicles, tribal elders on Monday traveled to the scene of fierce fighting between Pakistani forces and suspected al Qaeda militants, seeking an end to a week of clashes that have killed dozens of people.

An 18-member tribal peace delegation crossed through a tight military cordon for talks with elders of the Yargul Khel tribe, believed to be fighting alongside al Qaeda militants in a besieged area in lawless South Waziristan, where the government believes a "high-value" terror suspect is holed up.

Pakistan's military, meanwhile, said it was conducting DNA tests to identify six suspected foreign terrorists killed in the fighting, but would not elaborate on whether they included any important terror figure.

It is uncertain if the reported target is al Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahri - right-hand man to Osama bin Laden - or Uzbek militant Tahir Yuldash, or another terrorist.

Al-Zawahri is on the U.S. list of most wanted fugitives, and has a $25 million reward on his head.

"For us, every foreigner who is caught or killed, is important because we do not know who they are," Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told The Associated Press. "We took the decision to do DNA tests to confirm the identities of these people."

"I cannot say if any among them is al-Zawahri," he said.

Also Monday, Gen. John Abizaid, leader of the U.S. Central Command, is in Pakistan on an announced visit. Sultan would not say who met with Abizaid - who oversees U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq - or whether the trip has anything to do with the offensive in Wana.

Some 5,000-6,000 Pakistani forces have been fighting 400-500 foreign militants and tribesmen holding out in fortress-like compounds under siege in Pakistan's largest military operation in its tribal regions near Afghanistan since the government threw its support behind the U.S.-led war on terrorism in late 2001.

Shahzad Uddin, a resident in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, reported fighting resumed between army troops and militants for three hours before dawn in Duz Ghondai, a village about five miles to the west, the scene of earlier battles. But the situation appeared calm later Monday as the elders moved into the battle zone.

The government on Sunday gave permission to the elders to make the peace bid, but wanted them to carry three demands: that the fighters free 12 soldiers and two government officials taken captive last week; that they hand over tribesmen involved in the fighting; and that they kick out any foreigners or show the military where to track them down.

Attackers fired rockets overnight at a Pakistan army base on the western outskirts of Wana, but caused no damage or injuries. Troops fired artillery in response at a nearby hill, an intelligence official in Wana said on condition of anonymity.

Brig. Mahmood Shah, chief of security in for Pakistan's tribal areas, said two Chechens were killed trying to break through a military cordon Sunday. The military has arrested more than 100 suspects, including both foreigners and local tribesmen, but has refused to give updates of casualties.

Last week the military reported at least 17 soldiers and 26 militants had died in the initial fighting, and local officials say two dozen local people died in firing over the weekend.

Five bodies of what appeared to be 25- to 30-year-old men - among the six being subjected to DNA tests - were displayed to journalists at a military mortuary in Rawalpindi, a city near the capital Islamabad, late Sunday. They were laid out on stretchers and in open coffins in bloodied clothes.

Military officials said they were all foreigners, but it was virtually impossible for journalists to determine their nationality.

In Afghanistan, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the AP the United States was "very encouraged" by the ongoing Pakistani offensive. He said senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders were plotting attacks on Afghan and U.S. targets from Pakistan.

"We know several key Taliban figures are there, and there is some sense that some of the remaining al Qaeda leaders are in the border area on the other side," Khalilzad said.

Shah said fighting would stop Monday while the tribal elders were negotiating, though he refused to call it a cease-fire. Shooting could still break out because it is a tribal tradition to continue fighting even while negotiations are under way, he said.

Shah reiterated a pledge not to turn any captured Pakistanis over to a foreign country, presumably the United States. That promise did not apply to the foreign militants.

Security officials said their prisoners included Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and ethnic Uighurs from China's predominantly Muslim Xinjiang province. They added it is difficult to distinguish the foreigners from locals, as they have often lived in the region for a long time and speak the local Pashto language.

The operation has forced thousands of villagers from their homes, and provoked deep anger at the army. According to local government officials and intelligence officers, about two dozen local people were killed in attacks on five vehicles Saturday.

In the neighboring tribal region of North Waziristan, attackers fired four rockets at a paramilitary training school near the town of Miran Shah on Sunday night, wounding one soldier, a government official there said on the condition of anonymity.

By Ahsanullah Wazir and Stephen Graham