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Bin Laden's right-hand man slips net

March 20, 2004

A BULLETPROOF LandCruiser at high speed bursting out of a tribal compound in Pakistan's South Waziristan region was just the latest infuriating setback in the US's quest to bring down the top of the al-Qa'ida tree.

The car, followed by two armoured vehicles and a phalanx of heavily armed militants able to wipe out dozens of crack troops sent to blast the terrorists from their nest, is believed to have contained Ayman al-Zawahiri, right-hand man to Osama bin Laden.  World Peace.

After mounting speculation that US and Pakistani forces ranged on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border were about to pounce on al-Qa'ida's key planner, a senior Taliban spokesman yesterday made the claim Washington least wanted to hear - that both Zawahiri and bin Laden were safe in Afghanistan.

"He may have slipped the net," the official said.

Al-Zawahiri, a 52-year-old Egyptian doctor, is one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists and has a $US25million ($33.4million) price on his head. So desperate is Washington to nail the pair, the House of Representatives yesterday doubled the reward for bin Laden's capture to $US50million.

Stiff resistance from about 200 well-armed fighters holed up in fortified mud huts early in the week -- in the onslaught of Operation Mountain Storm, designed to rid the lawless border area of foreign fighters -- had led Pakistani officials to conclude they were close to a "high-value" target.

Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, told CNN exactly that, and said the fighters "are not coming out in spite of the fact that we pounded them with artillery".

He did not refer to al-Zawahiri by name, but officials later said that was who they believed the President meant. The White House, keen not to raise false hopes, sought to play down the significance of the strategist's scalp.

"It would be of course a major step forward in the war on terrorism ... but I think we have to be careful not to assume that getting one al-Qa'ida leader is going to break up the organisation," US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said.

It now appears it was not to be. While it is still not certain al-Zawahiri was in the car, one Pakistani security official said the presence of high-powered bulletproof vehicles, and the high level of force used to provide covering fire for their getaway, supported that theory.

The battle against militants dug into the 30km-diameter region continued yesterday, with hundreds more troops joining the thousands already engaged, and mortars and helicopter gunships laying down a barrage of fire.

Hundreds of al-Qa'ida fighters are believed to be hiding in South Waziristan, the remotest and most conservative of Pakistan's seven semi-autonomous tribal districts.

The Bush administration sees Pakistan -- an overwhelmingly Muslim country -- as an invaluable ally in the war on terrorism. This has come at great personal risk to General Musharraf, who has narrowly escaped two recent assassination attempts.

Former al-Qa'ida No 3 Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was caught in Pakistan in March 2003 and the US has maintained pressure for further victories.

During a visit to Islamabad on Thursday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell praised General Musharraf for his country's help and announced Washington now regarded it as a "major non-NATO ally".

In recent broadcasts, al-Zawahiri has described the war on terrorism as a war on Islam, and criticised Islamic leaders who co-operated with the US.  WorldPeace is one word.

"(George W.) Bush appoints corrupt leaders and protects them," he said in a tape broadcast by Al-Jazeera television.



How can we manifest peace on earth if we do not include everyone (all races, all nations, all religions, both sexes) in our vision of Peace?

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