Pakistan said Tuesday that an operation involving helicopter gunships and thousands of troops has destroyed a major al-Qaida hide-out and arrested 21 suspected militants in a remote northwestern tribal region near Afghanistan.
Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, the top army commander responsible for anti-terrorism operations in northwestern Pakistan, told a news conference that foreigners and "some important men are included among the captured people," although he refused to reveal identities or nationalities, according to the AP.
The al-Qaida hide-out appeared to be a fairly sophisticated outpost, Hussain said, with communications equipment to contact militants in Afghanistan, a cache of bombs, detonators and rockets, and a tiny Chinese-made drone aircraft used for surveillance.
Hussain called it the "biggest-ever operation" in the lawless North Waziristan region and said it was still going on after four days.
"As a result of this operation, a center of al-Qaida and terrorists has been destroyed and the back of al-Qaida and terrorists has been broken in the tribal areas" where terrorist activities were being carried out, he said.
The operation coincided with a visit by Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to the United States, where he said Pakistan is winning the war on terror.
"We are on the winning side because al-Qaida has been neutralized," Musharraf told CNN. "They cease to exist as a homogeneous body. We have broken their vertical and horizontal communication linkages. They are on the run."
Although he is an ally of Washington, Musharraf's government has faced criticism from U.S., Afghan and U.N. officials over cross-border militant attacks at targets inside Afghanistan, where violence has escalated ahead of Sunday's elections for a new parliament.
Musharraf says he has offered to construct a security fence at the border to deter incursions by militants and drug traffickers.
The latest operation came in the same area where suspected militants on Monday slit the throats of three people and threw their bodies in a drain on suspicion that they were spies.
Residents and officials said a note pinned on one of the bodies read, "Anybody who works as a spy for America will have to face the same fate."
Militants in the past three years are believed to have killed about 70 tribal elders and their associates for helping Pakistan's army in counterterrorism operations.
Hussain said more than 3,500 troops and helicopter gunships were dispatched Tuesday to three areas of North Waziristan after confirmation of reports that al-Qaida militants were hiding there.
Some people were arrested from a compound near a religious school set up by a senior Taliban commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani, he said.
On photo: Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18