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WANA, March 13: The search for five key suspects wanted to the authorities for harbouring and facilitating Al Qaeda militants appears to have come full circle after a tribal team sent out to them on Saturday returned empty-handed.

In a related development, US-led forces launched a big offensive in southeastern mountains of Afghanistan to arrest Osama bin Laden and other top leaders of Al Qaeda and Taliban.

Zalikhel tribesmen, the tribe to which the five suspects belong, met at Azam Warsak expecting the wanted men to appear before them.

The tribesmen had on Thursday summoned the five suspects - Haji Sharif, his brother Noor Islam, Nek Muhammad, Maulavi Abbas and Maulavi Aziz, to turn themselves over to the jirga on Saturday.

But to the disappointment of the jirga and the authorities anxiously waiting for the tribe to deliver, the five men did not turn up.

Tribal elders in the regional headquarters in Wana said they had sent a team of 10 Zalikhel tribesmen to make one more last ditch effort and persuade the suspects to surrender before the jirga.

But a tribal source late in the evening told Dawn, the team had returned empty-handed apparently failing to find the five suspects.

"They were not there. They have left their places and have disappeared," the tribal source said quoting a member of the team.

The Zalikhels are expected to 'officially' convey the matter to the authorities on Sunday. They are also expected to meet again on Sunday and mull over their next move after failing to convince the five men to lay down their arms and surrender peacefully. Officials here, however, said refusal by the five men to turn themselves over was hardly surprising.

"It looks like the five men are determined to fight it out than giving up peacefully. It is the tribe which is responsible for delivering the men to us. They were supposed to find the men and give them to us. If tomorrow the tribe tells us that the suspects have disappeared, we will certainly not accept this. This is no excuse at all," administrator South Waziristan, Muhammad Azam Khan said.

"We are ready for all eventualities. Our action will depend on the response we get from the tribe. Whatever action we take, the tribe will now have no excuse. They wouldn't say that we have not taken them into confidence or that the government has not followed local traditions of working through the jirga system. Whatever the case, law will be upheld and order maintained," he said.

One official said the tribe had been told in advance that the government could begin its own cordon and search operation if they did not discharge their own responsibility of turning the suspects over.

Officials here were locked in meetings to discuss and evolve their own strategy if efforts by the Zalikhel tribe - the largest sub-tribe of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe that inhabit South Waziristan - to either convince the suspects to surrender peacefully or track them down failed.

The five men, all former Jihadis, are believed to be sheltering and helping foreign militants, thought to be about 500 or more that include Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Uighur Chinese Muslims and Taliban.

A tribal source said the five men were reluctant to surrender for fear of being turned over to the United States despite assurances from the government.

"They take government assurances with a pinch of salt," remarked one tribal source.