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Pakistani tribes hunt for Qaeda

Militiamen driven by government threat

WANA, Pakistan -- Fearing another Pakistani army offensive, a 2,000-strong local militia began a sweep through mud-brick villages in their tribal homeland near the Afghan border yesterday, vowing to hunt down Al Qaeda supporters and hand them over to the government.

The tribal force headed off in two groups into the lawless territory of South Waziristan, the scene of a military operation last month that killed more than 120 people, including soldiers, militants, and civilians.

The government has threatened more tough military action if five tribesmen accused of harboring foreign terrorists don't surrender by today.

The earlier two-week operation was Pakistan's boldest since it joined the United States in the war on terrorism in late 2001. The offensive angered locals, as well as Islamic hard-liners and the political opposition.

The military said it killed 63 militants and captured 163, but none of them were top Al Qaeda men and hundreds are believed to have escaped. Dozens of homes in one of Pakistan's poorest regions were destroyed.

With at least 46 soldiers killed, Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, demonstrated he was serious about evicting hundreds of suspected foreign militants he says are hiding in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal regions, which for decades has remained outside central government control.

The region is suspected to be a hide-out for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri.

In the aftermath of the operation, tribal elders anxious to prevent a repeat have appealed for the five chief renegades to surrender, without success. The tribal force, consisting of volunteers from the Yargul Khel and two other local tribes, appears to be a last-ditch effort to avoid more bloodshed.

Such tribal forces, however, have been marshaled before and achieved little, amid lingering doubts about whether they are willing to attack fellow tribesmen.

Many of the foreign militants are thought to be veterans of the 1980s war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan who settled across the border in Pakistan and married into local families.

Inhabitants said the tribal force did not face any resistance yesterday, and there were no reported arrests. The militia destroyed the mud-brick home of one local man accused of sheltering foreign terrorists in the Azam Warsak area, but he had fled a day earlier, said villager Barkatullah Wazir.

The 2,000-strong force, armed with assault rifles, grenade launchers, and heavy weapons, had gathered in the town of Wana before heading off in two groups toward outlying regions closer to the Afghan border.

Malik Khadin, a tribal elder leading the hunt, told his troops they would clear the area of terrorists, and vowed that the wanted men would be handed over to the government "dead or alive," according to tribesman Allah Dad Khan Wazir.

Meanwhile, elders from across the tribal regions met in Wana yesterday and appealed for the government to postpone by 10 days tomorrow's deadline for tribesmen to hand over the men, Wazir said.

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