March 3, 2010

Pakistan's Army Takes Control of al-Qaeda Cave Network on Afghan border

The Times Online

Blankets were left strewn across the network of 156 caves, used by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy

A Pakistani soldier patrols one of the caves

Pakistani forces have taken control of a warren of caves that served until recently as the nerve centre of the Taleban and al-Qaeda and sheltered Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command to Osama bin Laden.

“It was the main hub of militancy where al-Qaeda operatives had moved freely,” Major-General Tariq Khan, the Pakistan regional commander, said as he gave journalists a tour of Damadola yesterday.

The village, nestling among snow-capped peaks in the Bajaur region along the Afghan border, has been fought over for 16 months. It is the first time that the Pakistani Army has set foot in the village, which had long been dominated by the insurgents operating on the both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

“Al-Qaeda was there. They had occupied the ridges. There were 156 caves designed as a defensive complex,” said General Khan, head of the Frontier Corps responsible for Pakistan’s counter-insurgency campaign in the region. He said that his forces had killed 75 foreign and local militants and cleared a zone up to the Afghan border, and that the campaign against the insurgents was in its final stage.

The army began operations in Bajaur in August 2008 and claimed victory in February last year, only for the insurgents to seep back when the Government’s focus switched to Pakistani Taleban fighters in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan.

Journalists were shown caves strewn with blankets and pillows, left in haste as the army approached in January. The village has been largely destroyed by the fighting.

A large mud compound on a hilltop was once believed to be the hideout of al-Zawahiri, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, who was the subject of a $25 million (£18 million) bounty. “He has been spotted here by the local residents in the past,” said Colonel Nauman Saeed, an army commander.


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