ISLAMABAD / PESHAWAR, March 1: Foreign Office spokesman Masood Khan on Monday said a 'special operation' would be launched in Wana soon to net Al Qaeda leaders and Taliban who are believed to be hiding there.

Talking to Dawn, the spokesman denied reports that 11,000 US troops were coming to conduct the operation along with Pakistani troops.

"It is a baseless news and if they come, they will remain on the other side of the border in Afghanistan and only Pakistani troops will take part in the 'special operation' on our side," he added.

The government, he said, had already deployed about 70,000 army personnel in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. "But it has been suggested that more troops should be deployed there," he added.

(According to APP, a Pakistan military spokesman also refuted a news report appearing in an American newspaper about a deal between Pakistan and the United States in connection with the capture of Osama bin Laden, Director-General of the Inter-Services Public Relations Maj- Gen Shaukat Sultan told a local TV network: "The report of the US newspaper was absolutely baseless.")

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat said the scope of the operation in Wana was widening and getting intensified.

"Our forces are carrying out the operation on Pakistan side. We have secured our borders as far as it is possible. On the other side of the border, in Afghanistan, the ISAF Coalition Forces and Afghanistan's own forces are engaged in their own operation," the minister said.

"We have told our coalition partners time and again to increase their strength on their side. Now the US government and coalition forces and even Nato have expressed willingness to do so and they are increasing their forces there," he added.

Mr Hayat said it was pure speculation that Osama bin Laden was already under the custody of Pakistani troops or officials.

He said it was mere speculation to say that Osama is still present and hiding in the border areas of Pakistan or Afghanistan.

"According to intelligence report and our own assessment, it seems that Osama and his chief lieutenant may be present in this area. But this is not the final word," he said.

Meanwhile, authorities in the South Waziristan tribal region on Monday imposed a penalty of Rs5.4 million on tribesmen for firing at government installations, and gave them a week's time to pay up the fine.

"We have given the tribes seven days to pay the penalty," South Waziristan Agency administrator Mohammad Azam Khan told Dawn by phone from regional headquarters in Wana.

This is the biggest penalty ever imposed on the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe since the creation of the SWA by the British in 1896. The fine has been imposed under Collective and Territorial Responsibility clauses of the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulation.

Already, the penalty has triggered concern among tribesmen, who say the government, instead of catching the culprits behind the attacks, was holding the entire tribe to ransom.

"This is not fair," commented one tribal elder reached on phone in Wana. "The culprits are known to the authorities. They should be apprehended and brought to justice. Why should the innocent be penalized and punished for a crime they have not committed?" he said.

Mr Azam Khan said the tribe had sought two days to discuss the matter and decide what to do. He said the tribal elders were most likely to ask for some reduction in penalty.

Officials said the penalty had been imposed on the tribe for several rocket attacks and firing at an army camp and other government installations over the last two months. This also includes Rs400,000 for the most recent missile attacks on a military checkpoint in Shulam.

The money could be collected by various means, including deduction in salaries of tribesmen working for the government, cut in government subsidy given to tribesmen and individual contribution at tribe and sub-tribe level.

A senior official in Peshawar with knowledge of the tribal territory said the authorities could use the fine as a bargaining chip to encourage the tribe to speed up their efforts in catching and turning over foreign militants.

Mr Azam Khan acknowledged this and said the Zalikhel Ahmadzai Wazir tribe was meeting in two days to choose their commander for the campaign against foreign militants.

"Now the thrust would be on Al Qaeda. We are going to ask the tribe to go after foreign militants and turn them over," he said.

Zalikhel tribe, the biggest amongst the Ahmadzai Wazirs, has been relatively slow on their response to the government's campaign against militants.

Officials see the Zalikhels meeting later this week as a major achievement in the campaign against foreign militants.

"Until now other Ahmadzai tribes had been complying while the Zalikhels had been dragging their feet. Now we hope to be able to put enough pressure on the tribe to get into action and show something," Mr Azam Khan said. Locals in Wana, however, said tension was mounting with every passing day with civilians being caught in the crossfire.

"Is it not ironic that our tribe has been fined millions of rupees for attacks on government installations? And what do we get? Eleven people have lost their lives and all their families could get in cash compensation is a mere Rs200,000 per dead person," commented a tribal journalist.

He was referring to the death in shooting of 11 passengers outside Wana on Saturday. Six others were wounded in the firing, which a military spokesman said was the result of mistaken identity. One of the wounded died on Tuesday taking the death toll now to 12, government officials and residents in Wana said.

President Gen Pervez Musharraf has ordered an inquiry into the incident while NWFP Governor Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah has given the inquiry team 10 days to complete and submit its report.

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