Islamabad, Pakistan Acting on U.S. intelligence, Pakistani soldiers raided an al-Qaida hide-out near the Afghan border, setting off a gunbattle that killed 10 Pakistani soliders and two suspected members of the terror network, officials said Wednesday.
A 15-year-old foreign boy was captured following the four-hour battle, which began late Tuesday near the border town of Wana, Pakistani officials said. However, most of the fighters, believed to be Chechens, escaped in the darkness early Wednesday, military and police officials said.
Pakistani helicopters flew over the area, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) west of Islamabad, throughout Wednesday, searching for the al-Qaida fugitives. Pakistan sent hundreds more troops to hunt down the fugitives responsible for the Pakistani army's first known combat deaths of the war against terrorism.
Army officials estimated between 40 and 45 al-Qaida fighters were still hiding in the area after the raid. Pakistani officers reached by telephone in Wana.
The al-Qaida members were believed to have been Chechens who fled to the Wana area, which is under the control of tribal leaders sympathetic to the Taliban, after the U.S. military's Operation Anaconda in southeastern Afghanistan in March.
Pakistani forces have been operating in the area, located across the border from the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Paktika, since President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ordered them last year to try to intercept al-Qaida and Taliban members fleeing from U.S. military attacks. U.S. special forces have been helping Pakistani forces in the area, but local residents said they saw no U.S. troops during the raid.
"In an effort to apprehend the al-Qaida elements using minimum force due to concern for safety of the civilian population, 10 security persons" were killed, the Pakistani military said in a statement. "A number of al-Qaida foreign terrorists were also killed."
The statement gave no further details. However, an Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Pakistani troops and paramilitary Frontier Scouts went late Tuesday to a tribal elder's home about 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside Wana after U.S. intelligence determined al-Qaida members were hiding there.
A Pakistani officer demanded that the fugitives surrender. Instead, the Chechens opened fire with semiautomatic weapons and rifle-propelled grenades, triggering a gunbattle that persisted until nearly dawn, the official said.
He said some soldiers were wounded and evacuated by helicopter to nearby hospitals. Troops found uniforms, a mortar and al-Qaida literature in the house. There was no indication what happened to the tribal elder.
A lawyer reached by telephone in the area said he was leaving a mosque after evening prayers Tuesday when he saw Pakistani armored vehicles and three ambulances headed toward the elder's home.
"Suddenly we heard intense firing," he said on condition of anonymity. "It was heavy for about four hours, then less but there was shooting until dawn.
He said tribal authorities had tried to convince the army to let them try to convince the al-Qaida fighters to surrender but were told by an officer: "This is not Afghanistan. This is Pakistan."
Most tribal leaders are religious conservatives who feel a responsibility to shelter fellow Muslims and are fiercely protective of their autonomy, which dates back to agreements struck with the British when they ruled the area as part of British India.
A Pakistani journalist in Wana, who asked not to be identified, said booby-trapped explosives were also found in the elder's house after the battle. He said army officers feared that other houses used by al-Qaida fugitives had also been wired with explosives.
"The situation is very tense and most people have closed their shops because of the ongoing search operation in the area," a Wana resident, Mohammed Farooq, said by telephone. He said hundreds of heavily armed troops were swarming through the area looking for the al-Qaida fighters.
During recent weeks, local government buildings and Pakistani troops have occasionally come under brief rocket and machine gun fire from unknown attackers, but no soldiers have been killed.
U.S. officials estimate that up to 1,000 al-Qaida fighters still operate in small groups on both sides of the mountainous border area.
On Saturday, Musharraf said Pakistan has arrested about 300 suspected al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in the border area, which is largely outside the control of the central government and dominated by local tribal leaders.
Musharraf, however, faces domestic criticism from conservative religious groups who sympathized with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and who consider the war on terrorism to be a Western campaign against Islam.
U.S. and British troops have been scouring border areas in southeastern Afghanistan for weeks looking for al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts. They have found several weapons caches, but few fighters.