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Pakistan Army Off Osama Hunt?

The Pakistan army said Saturday it will withdraw hundreds of troops from a tense tribal region near Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and his top deputy were believed to be hiding.

The withdrawals from the South Waziristan area come after several military operations by thousands of troops against remnants of bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and its supporters in recent months.

Although the tribal region is considered a possible hiding place for bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, a senior Pakistan general said earlier this month that no sign of bin Laden has been found.

Bin Laden, architect of the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States, has been on the run since U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, routing the Taliban rulers, who harbored al Qaeda militants.

The army will remove checkpoints in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, the top general in northwestern Pakistan, said after meeting with tribal elders Friday.

He said the moves are "in return for the support of tribesmen in operations against foreign miscreants." Some troops will remain in the area, he said.

"We have been assured by tribal elders that they will not allow miscreants to hide in areas under their control," Hussain said.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 Pakistani forces were deployed in a three-pronged offensive in the eastern reaches of the rugged region this month. U.S. military forces remain largely on the Afghanistan side in hopes of capturing or killing any al Qaeda operatives crossing the border.

Earlier this month, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy commander of Central Command, said it was "essential that Pakistan military continue their operations" in the area, adding that Pakistan has made "very, very positive moves" against al Qaeda and its supporters in the past six months.

Smith said Pakistan's military was so effective in pressuring al Qaeda leaders hiding in the tribal region of western Pakistan that bin Laden and his top deputies no longer were able to direct terrorist operations.

At a news conference Friday, Hussain presented three captured Central Asians, including two teenage boys, alleged to be Islamic militants. He said the militants were using the youths to target military forces.

Pakistani officials have said hundreds of Arab and Central Asian militants suspected of links with al Qaeda were hiding in South Waziristan, supported by sympathetic tribesmen.

Earlier, provincial Gov. Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah said all "innocent people" rounded up from the tribal regions during the recent military operations will be released.

He asked tribesmen to give all possible help to the government in seizing foreign militants and tried to ease concerns that the government had been targeting any tribe.

"The misunderstanding between you and the government appeared when you gave refuge to some foreign elements, who were neither your friends nor well-wishers nor of the government," he said.