ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A senior Al Qaeda leader has been seriously wounded and is on the run, Pakistan's military spokesman said yesterday, while contending that an operation to rid the western border areas of suspected terrorists has been a success.
But observers critical of the massive military sweep called it a political failure, citing the high number of troop casualties and officials' failure to capture any so-called high-value targets.
Recently gathered intelligence and eyewitness accounts indicate that Al Qaeda commander Tahir Yuldash was badly wounded and is in hiding, military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan said.
He admitted, though, that Pakistani forces are not close to capturing Yuldash.
"He might have slipped away, he's on the run," Sultan said.
Yuldash, also known as Tahir Yuldashev, is the leader of an Uzbek terror group -- Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- which Pakistani officials say has been subsumed by Al Qaeda since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
He was previously mentioned as one of two possible "high-value targets" cornered when Pakistan's military began the sweep of South Waziristan on March 16.
Heavy government casualties have led to disappointment and criticism over the operation, especially after President Pervez Musharraf stoked expectations by saying a prize capture -- possibly Yuldash or Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri -- was cornered. "As a military operation, it did not go well at all," said Talat Masood, a Pakistani military and political analyst.
He said that security forces had failed to expect entrenched militant forces.
The lack of preparation left some 50 soldiers and at least a dozen civilians dead, and enflamed passions among religious hard-liners.