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Pakistani Military Targets Suspected Al-Qaida Hideouts Near Afghan Border - 2004-06-12

Pakistan's air and ground forces intensified an offensive against suspected al-Qaida hideouts in a mountainous region near the border with Afghanistan. At least 61 people, including 18 government soldiers, have died as the fighting enters its fourth day.

Pakistani military officials say their offensive is focusing on a suspected al-Qaida terrorist training facility and two safe houses in the Shakai valley of the South Waziristan tribal region.

They say that around 50 local and foreign suspected al-Qaida terrorists are entrenched there, and are putting up strong resistance.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan told reporters in Islamabad Saturday that Pakistan is determined to flush these militants from the area, not far from the Afghan border.

"These intruders, who have come from somewhere, they have made these local tribesmen and tribes hostage to their designs. This is not an ideological war," he noted. "This is just that you are using somebody else's soil for your own operations, and that has to come to an end."

He dismissed suggestions that the anti-terror activity is meant to please the United States, or that American troops are also involved in the operation. The spokesman reiterated that Pakistan is an ally in the U.S. led war on terror, and this is part of that policy.

"If there is a coalition, they are jointly moving against terrorism, and they are strategizing to eliminate terrorism," he said. "To that extent, of course, there is a commonality [between Pakistan and the U.S- led coalition]. But beyond that, of course, we have our own pace. We make our own decisions, and we are not taking them to please anybody."

On the Afghan side of the border, a U.S. military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Tucker Mansager told reporters in Kabul Saturday, that the coalition forces are keeping strict vigil to intercept anyone fleeing the Pakistani operation.

"We continue to maintain very close contacts with the Pakistani military, sharing information on both sides of the border," he said. "We maintain a very robust presence on that portion of the border, in the anticipation that any anti-coalition militants that might try to escape the Pakistani army, cross the border, we are more than prepared for them."

Pakistan military officials say an alleged financier of al-Qaida's terrorist activities, identified as Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, used to frequently visit the houses under attack in the border region.

In a similar anti-terror operation in the tribal region in March, more than 60 suspected terrorists and 48 government soldiers were killed.