KOHAT, Dec 9: A military commander said here on Thursday there was no indication about the presence of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant Aiman Al-Zawahiri in the South Waziristan tribal region.

"I have been operating in this region for the last seven months and we have a very good intelligence system in place. How can I say that they are there when they are not there at all," Kohat's General Officer Commanding Maj-Gen Niaz Muhammad Khattak told Dawn.

Gen Khattak, whose troops operate in the volatile region, said there were now only small groups of what he called third-rank Tahir Yaldesh-type Al Qaeda operatives left in the region.

"He may still be around," he said of Tahir Yaldash, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. "But they are operating in small groups and hiding in caves. We have destroyed their caves and they are on the run," Gen Khattak claimed.

He said the military had taken the sting out of the Al Qaeda and Taliban and completely destroyed their command and control structure and logistics in the South Waziristan Agency, and intelligence reports suggest they were not in a position to reorganize themselves in the region.

"Their communication traffic is being monitored by intelligence agencies for the last two years and it shows that their communication capacity has reduced drastically and that is the reason they cannot make hostile attacks any more on troops operating in the area. "Out of 500 to 600 foreigners there are now about 100 of them who are still hiding in caves and mountains. None of them is roaming the streets," he said.

"After going through about 400 pages of written material obtained from the terrorists' hideouts, it can be said that they have been maintaining a very high level of secrecy which is better than that of the armed forces, because so far we have not identified sources from where the terrorists get the money, transport and computers etc.

"The army will remain in the area till the writ of the government is completely restored and no operation will be conducted in future unless the army is attacked," he declared.

Talking about collateral damage, he admitted that few civilian causalities and some damage to property had taken place because what he put it was difficult during the conflict in that particular region to differentiate between friends and foes because local people had been protecting foreigners.

Answering to a question, he claimed that the displacement of tribesmen from the Waziristan agency had been caused by fears of terrorists who were being chased by the military. Gen Khattak disclosed that so far 200 armymen had been killed in various circumstances during the operation.

Regarding joint precautionary measures taken by the Pakistani and US forces along the border he said: "We have done our bit more than what the US has done on the other side."

"Our troops-to-ground ratio and that with terrorists is much higher than those of the US and Afghan security forces guarding the other side of the border. We have effectively sealed the border but there are still places, which are inaccessible.

This disadvantage of inaccessibility applies both to the military and the terrorists, keeping in view the climate and geographic conditions of the region," he said at an earlier briefing for journalists.

Answering a question, he said: "We are not fighting for Americans, but Pakistan and the US have a common objective in the fight against terrorism." He said that for some time anti-terrorism training had been a part of the military training.

"Yes there is a need to establish a special force to combat terrorism, addressing both its root and apparent causes. It is a multi-faceted problem the world is facing today, and in view of capabilities possessed by terrorists it can be said that we need a much specialized force and resources to eliminate them completely."

At present coordinated efforts were being made by the president, the federal government, the provincial governments, military and the political administrations to redress grievances and reservations of tribesmen about the military presence in the area, he said.

"Both the tribesmen and the military have started understanding each other, which I call tough love. You have to communicate in the language and gestures which they understand easily. Sometimes it is stick, sometimes it is carrot, which work in the Pushtoon area," he added.

Gen Khattak said that the five wanted men who had recently surrendered to the military had pledged not to support foreigners in future. He said that the terrorists who had kidnapped the Chinese workers would not go unpunished.

The Wazir belt has realized that it was a mistake to support terrorists and now there was a complete calm in that area. However, as far as the Mehsuds were concerned, he said, the army had enforced its writ in 75 per cent of area.

Gen Khattak said the army was still at the highest alert, although most of the terrorists had been killed or forced to shift to other areas, the reason being that some internal and external elements did not want to see stability in this region.

About the presence of Indians in the region he said: "I leave it to you to decide, keeping in view the ground situation where our own locals had been fighting and killing their own army."

He said the main reason for the military to launch the operation inside the tribal areas was that the tribesmen who Had earlier worked as a bulwark against foreign forces, had failed to protect their own land.

They were misled by a few clerics and those who had come from Afghanistan after the pullout of the Russian forces. The only men in the tribal area whose words mattered in disputes' resolution were the men who led prayers, he said. "Their knowledge of Jihad and Islam was so little that it is difficult to them to explain the term to the ignorant and innocent Pushtoons."

"What kind of Jihad is it to obstruct development in the area, construction of schools, hospitals and roads, etc," Gen Khattak asked. A majority of tribesmen had now realized that the army was not there to kill them but to save them from terrorists and develop their areas, he said.

"This is the land of the Pushtoons and not that of terrorists. Similarly, the writ in that area should be that of the Pushtoons and not of aliens who are out to harm the stability in the region."

He regretted that over the years, the British expeditions, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the US attack on Afghanistan had badly disturbed socio-economic, political and cultural power equilibrium in tribal areas.

"There is extreme poverty in the area, barren lands and no jobs, which made the tribesmen an easy prey to foreign elements who exploited their religious sentiments for their political ends.

Now we are there to give them jobs, to develop their area, give power to the elders under the devolution plan and to eradicate drugs production and arms smuggling. We also want to teach them what jihad is, its time, place and aims," he said while elaborating future objectives of the army in the region.

About the terms of peace with the tribesmen, he said the government had offered them amnesty, even to those who had killed armymen. "Now the ball is in the court of the foreigners and their protectors." They had three options - register themselves, leave the Pakistani soil or get killed.

Giving details about development projects under way in the region, Gen Khattak said about 54-kilometre-long roads would be Built at an estimated cost of Rs65.95 million; Rs1 million would be spent on improving water supply system; and three bus stands have been planned in Shakai at a cost of Rs1 million.

Similarly, the military would spend more than Rs1.6 million on playgrounds and parks. All this will be in addition to Rs2 million being spent on maintenance of facilities. All these schemes would be carried out with army's own resources.

From the Annual Development Programme fund, he said, a 10-kilometre road would be built at a cost of Rs32.59 million. Besides, he said, Rs2 million would be spent on water supply schemes in Zalai and Srakanda.

Three more roads would be built from Dre Nishtar to Zamchan, Zamchan to Azam Warsak via Angor Adda and from Azam Warsak to Kahnkot at a cost of Rs171 million under a separate special programme.

Besides, he added, President Gen Pervez Musharraf had allocated a special grant of Rs250 million for the region, which would be utilized for building 522 kilometres of roads to connect Dand Kach with Karama and Shahi Khel, Kotkai with Landsai Din, Ospana Raghzai with Tiarza and Torwam with Khudaiwam.

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