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15 killed as Osama men try to escape

December 20, 2001

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PESHAWAR, Dec 19: Fifteen people were killed on Wednesday, six of them members of Pakistan law-enforcement agencies, when Al- Qaeda captives being transported from the tribal area to a detention centre in Peshawar overpowered escorting guards, snatched weapons and opened fire, a senior government official told Dawn in Parachinar.

The incident occurred at Arawali, a village about 195km to the north of here when 156 Al-Qaeda members arrested by the law-enforcement agencies at the Pakistan-Afghan border at Kurram Agency were being transported to Peshawar in three buses and two trucks.

According to the official account of the incident, at about 10.30am (local time), a group of 48 Al-Qaeda members, in one of the buses, attempted to overpower the driver and escorting guards. As a result of the ensuing melee, it said, the bus careened off the winding road near Arawali in the Frontier Region’s Kurram and fell in a 20-foot ditch.

Taking advantage of the situation, an official press note said, the Al-Qaeda men snatched guns and fled. During the exchange of fire between the Al-Qaeda men and the law-enforcement agencies, eight Al-Qaeda men were killed. Also killed in the gun battle were six members of the Kurram Levy and one Jawan of the Pakistan Army while six others received bullet wounds and were taken to the hospital for treatment.

The law-enforcement agencies pursued the fleeing Al-Qaeda men and succeeded in capturing 21 of them, while 18 others remain at large, and security cordon has been thrown in to capture them. Ten of those who escaped were arrested from a local school.

A senior government official said the 129 Al-Qaeda members still in custody, including the 21 recaptured after their escape, were being transported to Peshawar for interrogation amid heightened security. “We are not taking any chances now,” the official said.

“They said something in Arabic among themselves, raised Allah- o-Akbar (Allah is Great) and Al-Jihad (slogans) and pounced on us,” bus cleaner Latif Hussain told Dawn. “We cried out for help,” he said. The Al-Qaeda men snatched five rifles and escaped in two different directions. “One group fled towards the mountains and another towards the river,” Home and Tribal Affairs Secretary Javed Iqbal said.

Latif said the Al-Qaeda captives were not handcuffed.” They raised slogans of Al-Jihad the moment they were brought out of Parachinar jail. “Their slogans attracted quite a bit of crowd,” eyewitnesses said. Government officials said a little over hundred members of law-enforcement agencies accompanied the Al-Qaeda men. Witnesses said the security detail was not adequate to escort battle-hardened, well-trained Al-Qaeda fighters. “It looked as if they were being taken on a picnic,” one witness remarked.

Government officials acknowledge that local tribesmen fully cooperated in apprehending the escaped prisoners. “We were offered money and were asked not to hand them over to the Pakistan authorities. They told us they waged a Jihad against the US and that the Pakistanis would turn them over to the Americans,” Malik Zahid Hussain of village Bili Ameen who helped capture four said.

Last reports said a group of escaped prisoners had been engaged in Narai Tangi in Tuda Cheena area in F.R. Kurram. “They are firing with controlled fire. We hope to capture them soon,” Javed Iqbal said. “We have cordoned off the area. The search is on and we hope to arrest them all,” he told Dawn.

He said the group of 156 Al-Qaeda men had crossed over into Pakistan through the Mulla Bagh, Tandar Sar and Ghundao area on the Pakistan-Afghan border in four batches. The Al-Qaeda men were fleeing the Tora Bora region in the foothills of Spin Ghar that has seen relentless bombings by US warplanes for the past few weeks, he added.

Among the captives are Saudis, Malis, Yemenis, Tunisians, Turks, Algerians, Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Bahrainis, Bangladeshis, Tajiks, Iraqis, Sudanese, Syrians, Egyptians and Moroccans. Also among them is a French national of Arab origin identified as Abde Aziz Talabi and another Arab with a Swedish passport identified as Mehdi Mohammad Ghazali. Ghazali has a blank passport with no entry visa to Pakistan.

Government officials said four Al-Qaeda men accompanying the group died on their way due to hypothermia. “Their bodies are being retrieved from the mountains in a small hamlet called Chambak,” they said.

Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding in Tora Bora, though Pakistani officials said they had no evidence to prove his presence there. “One group of people interrogated said it had seen Osama about a month ago in Tora Bora. Another said he had been seen about 20 days back. These people have not been subjected to real interrogation. I will not put any premium on that,” Javed Iqbal said.

“The weather has turned ugly to his disadvantage because of the heavy snow in Spin Ghar. This will restrict his mobility. His supplies wouldn’t last long and he will show up sooner than later,” he commented.

The home secretary discarded reports that Osama might already have sneaked into Pakistan. “The chances are very very slim. There is a bounty on his head, plus the army deployment on 25 points along with levy and military forces along the tribal border with Afghanistan plugging all possible escape routes would make it impossible for him to sneak in.”

Our Kohat Correspondent adds: About three dozen men from army’s special services group joined the regular army troops in an operation launched for arresting the Al-Qaeda members who are still at large in the Mandal mountains in the Arawal area in the lower Kurram Agency.

At least 48 Al-Qaeda members had escaped from a truck while on their way to Peshawar from Parachinar jail. The four trucks were carrying 48, 48, 29 and 31 Al-Qaeda prisoners.

The commandos were airlifted to the top of the mountains in helicopters from the Kohat air base to search for the missing Al-Qaeda members. Two gunships were also helping the ground forces to locate the hiding Al-Qaeda members.

The whole area has been cordoned off by the army troops whereas more militiamen have been dispatched from Parachinar to the area. The military and civil authorities, supervising the operation hoped that all the Al-Qaeda men would be arrested by Thursday as all escape routes from the mountain area have been sealed.

The authorities have shifted the remaining Al-Qaeda members to Alizai sub-jail. An official told Dawn that the Al-Qaeda members would be shifted to Peshawar sometime on Thursday in special trucks, sought from the Peshawar police department.

SCOTTISH NATIONAL SEIZED: Government officials in Peshawar said authorities in Miram Shah in North Waziristan Agency have arrested a Scottish convert to Islam, who had crossed over into Pakistan from neighbouring Afghanistan.