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Pakistani Officials: Senior al-Qaida Member May be Cornered - 2004-03-18

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf says government forces may have surrounded "a high value target" in a remote tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Pakistani troops are engaged in a major operation in the region aimed at flushing out suspected militants linked to the al-Qaida terror network.

President Musharraf says government forces have been fighting pitched-battles with suspected militants in the country mountainous tribal region known as South Waziristan.

In an interview for CNN, the Pakistani leader said that the stiff resistance put up by the militants indicates they could be trying to protect "a high-valued target." Mr. Musharraf did not elaborate.

It is reported that al-Qaida's number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri is present among the militants. But Pakistani and U.S. counter-terrorism officials have refused to confirm it.

Hundreds of Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships and artillery are taking part in the offensive. Officials say that as many as 600 heavily armed "foreign terrorists" are fighting the government forces.

Pakistan Military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan says the clashes are continuing. "The operation that commenced early morning today, that is 18th of March, encompasses the government's resolve to root out terrorism from its soil at all costs. [The] exchange of fire between the security forces and the miscreants continues intermittently until now," he said.

The latest round of fighting follows bloody clashes in the region Tuesday that killed 15 paramilitary troops and 24 foreign militants believed to be of Middle East, central Asian and Chechen origin.