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Pakistan Possibly Closing In On Al-Qaida’s No. 2 Leader

By David Rohde

The New York Times -- ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

Pakistani military and intelligence officials said Thursday night that they believed they had surrounded al-Qaida’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, in a small cluster of villages near the border with Afghanistan.

The military officials said 7,000 regular army and paramilitary troops, backed by jets, helicopters and artillery, were in the area.

Stiff fighting between those forces and militants continued early Friday local time, the officials said. They said would not try to enter the area until daybreak. They also said jets and helicopters might bomb the area.

There was no outside corroboration of the presence of al-Zawahri, whose whereabouts have been uncertain for more than two years. But the military and intelligence officials said two factors led them to believe the militants were defending him: First, they said, ferocious resistance to a military raid that began on Tuesday had prompted the deadliest fighting in the area in two years, suggesting the presence of a top Qaida leader. Second, they said, they had received reports for months that al-Zawahri was in the area, South Waziristan.

There were no reports that Osama bin Laden was in the area, the officials said.

The Pakistani government was cautious about the reports that its forces might have cornered al-Zawahri.

On Thursday evening, Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, said in an interview with CNN that a “high-value target” had “very likely” been surrounded in South Waziristan, and that the fierce resistance led him to believe it was a senior Qaida leader. “Who, I don’t know,” he said.

The capture or killing of al-Zawahri would be a crippling blow to al-Qaida. An Egyptian-born surgeon, he is believed to have planned some of al-Qaida’s major attacks, including those in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Al-Zawahri is believed to be bin Laden’s closest aide and his personal physician. Last fall, audiotapes of a man purporting to be al-Zawahri urged Pakistanis to overthrow Musharraf in retaliation for cooperating with the American-led war on terrorism. In December, Musharraf narrowly survived two assassination attempts.

The raid that began on Tuesday involved 300 Pakistani paramilitary troops, known as scouts, who were sent to the village of Kaloosha in Azam Warsak. A senior Pakistani intelligence official said the scouts were searching not for al-Zawahri but for 25 foreign militants believed to be living in a large mud-brick compound, sheltered by three Pakistanis: Nek Muhammad, Haji Sharif and his brother Noor Islam.

As the Pakistani forces surrounded the compound at 6:30 a.m., a young man leaving on a motorcycle spotted the government troops and sped back inside, government officials said. Minutes later, a pickup truck roared out, just as the scouts suddenly found themselves under fire from militants who had come up from behind.

The fleeing pickup broke through the government cordon but then smashed into a nearby building, the officials said. Seven men jumped out and fled. Blood was found inside the vehicle, suggesting one of the seven might have been wounded.

An intelligence official said that the wounded man might have been al-Zawahri.