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Musharraf: High-Value Target Believed Holed in Pakistan With Approximately 200 Allies, Supporters

Aired March 18, 2004 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in New York. Welcome back to our continuing coverage. We're following a fierce fight that's unfolding in Western Pakistan right now. The Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf tells our Aaron Brown that a high-value target is believed to be holed up there together with approximately 200 of his allies and supporters.
We've been following this story now for the past several hours. It's the middle of the night right now along that border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Very rugged terrain. The high-value target believed to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No. 2 assistant. There he is, the picture of the Egyptian. A former leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

CNN's Aaron Brown has been in Islamabad Pakistan, speaking with Pakistani officials, including the Pakistani president. Here's what he's been reporting.


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Pakistani forces believe in this group of al Qaeda fighters that they have surrounded in Western Pakistan is the al Qaeda No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. They believe he is among 200 well-trained, extremely well-equipped al Qaeda fighters who are holed up in the area.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, PRESIDENT OF PAKISTAN: The net is there, they are there. This see strong dug-in positions. The houses that actually there are almost forts, they are mud forts. And all these fort are occupied. And they are dug in. And they are giving fierce resistance.

So he's reasonably sure there's a high value target there.

BROWN: There is a general plan of action that has now been put into place. The Pakistani government will try and get at them through the air, an air attack tomorrow sometime after lightfall. It sounds like they will go in with helicopter gunships. But they may go in with fixed-wing and do some bombing as well.

The concern among these sources is pretty simple. You're in a very difficult terrain. And while they describe the scene as we have them surrounded, it's hardly an air-tight net. The feeling is -- or the concern is that al-Zawahiri and the others -- or perhaps al- Zawahiri and just a few, will try and make some sort of escape tonight. They're obviously doing what they can to prevent that.

But it is the dead of night and that is the risk that they face. The plan is to go in by air tomorrow or at least first light. It's now coming up on 1:00 in the morning Friday morning here in Pakistan.

The fear is that they can escape, period. How they escape, what methods they escape, whether they have a plan to escape, whether there are tunnels, whether there are caves. The concern is that they can get out of this something less than air-tight noose.

You know this is something that is moving -- I'm not sure -- I don't want to speak for the sources beyond what the sources tell us. They are aware that it is not sealed off. They may be surrounded, but it isn't sealed.


BLITZER: CNN's Aaron Brown reporting from Islamabad. The full interview that he conducted with President Musharraf will air tonight 10:00 p.m. Eastern on "NEWSNIGHT." That comes up 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

Let's go over to the Pentagon. Our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre is following all of these developments as well. Jamie, what are your sources telling you about this fierce fight that's under way now?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: They're very interested, Wolf, in how this will develop because they are being told by the Pakistani government that the Pakistani military on the scene does believe it has a high-value target surrounded. They believe it is, in fact, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 to bin Laden.

But U.S. officials stress that they cannot confirm any of that, that they are essentially getting that information from the Pakistani government.

What we can say is that the U.S. military, operating just a short distance away across the border in Afghanistan, is on high alert in the event, as Aaron Brown described, any of those people attempt to escape across the border.

Now, it is a very mountainous, remote region. And it is an easy place for people to hide and a hard place for them to find them. The U.S. has brought in its highest tech surveillance equipment in order to monitor the border, including Predator spy planes that have thermal cameras that can spot the heat of a body as it goes through the mountains.

They're also going to have U-2 spy planes that can operate on the Afghan side of the border and still look down at what's happening as well as overhead imagery from satellites.

The U.S. is providing Pakistan with as much help as it can, but has not been invited to take part in the operation. Pakistan has been insisted all along that it wants to operate on its side of the border. It is the Pakistani operation now that is under way in an attempt to capture whoever these al Qaeda fighters and whoever they may be protecting in this area of just across the border of Southeastern Afghanistan in Northern Pakistan -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie, I'm told that the Pakistanis have pretty sophisticated equipment, pretty sophisticated air assets, as they're called, and pretty sophisticated reconnaissance for their own part, even though they're getting some assistance from the U.S. But this is strictly a Pakistani operation as far as everything we can tell. Is that right?

MCINTYRE: Well, pretty much, say 99 percent. The U.S. is providing, as I said, some advice and some logistical support, but it's basically run by the Pakistanis. And they've been insistent they want it that way. That's been one of the conditions that President Pervez Musharraf has made in his really becoming one of the closest allies to the United States in the fight against Taliban and al Qaeda.

Two other things I would just say that Pentagon officials are stressing. One is they're downplaying the expectation that somebody will be captured. It's very easy in these situations for the enemy fighters to melt away into the country side. It's happened before. It could easily happen again.

And the other thing they're saying is that even if someone is captured, it's unlikely that would break the back of al Qaeda even if it was the No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri. That al Qaeda has been so splintered, and so many of the groups operating are just loosely linked to al Qaeda, that there would still be a long way to go in the war on terrorism and breaking the back of al Qaeda -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre. Jamie, we'll be checking back with you as our continuing coverage moves along.

Over at the White House, they're watching this, obviously, very, very closely. Our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is on the beat today. Suzanne, what are you hearing?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, administration sources here cannot confirm whether or not this is Ayman al-Zawahiri. They are watching developments very closely.

But according to one of my sources, they are saying they are not yet getting excited about this. Often first reports can be wrong. This has happened many times before.

But having said that, earlier today, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice spoke with our John King, and she did say that if this was al-Zawahiri, that it would be significant in the war on terror.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, were it true, it would, of course, be a major step forward in the war on terrorism because he's obviously an extremely important figure.

But I think we have to be careful not to assume that getting one al Qaeda leader is going to break up the organization. We've always said that, even with Osama bin Laden, who we'd all like to see brought to justice, that that will not be the end of al Qaeda. They have local leadership. They have other national leadership.

We have to dismantle the entire network, not just one person.


MALVEAUX: And today President Bush spending his day at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. That is where he was thanking the troops, many of whom have just recently returned from Iraq.

He met privately with some of the families of the fallen in Iraq as well. One of the reasons, of course, to show his gratitude to the troops there. But another reason in part for this trip is also to make the case that the war is just -- this coming on the eve of the one-year anniversary of this invasion.

BLITZER: Suzanne, we'll be checking back with you as well. Suzanne Malveaux at the White House.

CNN's Candy Crowley is in Washington watching all of these developments as well.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. We wanted to go back to the White House and talk to the chief of communications there, Dan Bartlett, who is standing by near where Suzanne is, to ask them exactly what they know about what's going on in Pakistan and when they knew it, that sort of thing.

Do we have Dan there? I can't tell if that's a yes or a no. Hi, Dan?


CROWLEY: I'm fine, how are you? We're on the air. So, listen -- can you just give us a situation report as far as the White House understands what's happening?

BARTLETT: Well, we understand that there is an operation under way that has been reported over the last couple of weeks. There's been extreme amount of cooperation with the new Afghan army, with coalition forces, as well as Pakistani officials.

They've been incredible partners in the war on terror. We are having great success as we go after the remnants of Taliban, and more importantly, those in the al Qaeda organization.

I can't today and at this moment confirm the specific details about the specific high value target, as it's been described. So while I can't give specific operational confirmation, I can confirm that there are operations under way. And if it were to be true -- and I stress that we do not have that information -- it would obviously be a key victory in the war on terror.

CROWLEY: Dan, when you say coalition forces, do I take from that that there is some U.S. involvement, either peripherally or in the main?

BARTLETT: Well, we are active on the ground, both with regular forces and special forces, the NATO forces as well in place. Again, I don't think it's appropriate for me to go into the specific nature of the operation.

But I can just tell you more broadly that the cooperation of U.S. forces coupled with the new Afghan army working with the Pakistani officials has yield the some very good success.

And that's why you have the type of optimism by commanders on the ground that we have the right strategy in place as we continue to roll back the terrorists and close in on those who are in the leadership positions potentially in that part of the world.

CROWLEY: Just so I can be perfectly clear -- I understand that you can't tell us what exactly any of the forces are doing. But as specifically regards this action, there is in some way some U.S. involvement?

BARTLETT: Again, I think I'm going to wait and let the Pentagon brief those details on specific involvement.

CROWLEY: Can you tell me whether the Pakistan government, whether Musharraf has spoken with President Bush about this specific event?

BARTLETT: He has not. As you know, President Bush has joined some of our forces down at Fort Campbell, where he is talking about the progress they're making in the war on terror, particularly in Iraq and other parts of the world.

So the two, while have a close communication over the course of this war on terror, President Musharraf and President Bush, to my understanding, have not spoken today.

CROWLEY: And when did you first become aware that there was activity? Have you known for several days? When did you first know -- when did the White House first know of this?

BARTLETT: Well, obviously, our national security team is routinely updated on different military operations. This is part of a broader operation that has been reported before that's taking place in the region.

So, again, this is not one of those situations where you're going to know several days in advance what exactly or precisely could be part of an operation or who could be involved in an operation. And I think a very good example of that is if I were sitting with you here today talking to you about Saddam Hussein the day before he was captured, I couldn't have told you that at that moment how close we were to getting . It's one of those things, when an opportunity presents itself, you act.

And that's exactly what this strategy in place in Afghanistan is, to have the right people, the right tools in place. If an opportunity presents itself, we're able to act. And I think that's what you're seeing.

CROWLEY: Dan Bartlett, communications director at the White House. Thank you, Dan, very much for joining us.

Want to throw it back to Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Candy. And thanks very much to Dan Bartlett. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we'll go back to the region, Islamabad. Afghanistan, Pakistan, a massive manhunt underway. The suspect believed to be the number 2 al Qaeda leader. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our continuing coverage. The manhunt for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number 2 al Qaeda leader, Pakistani forces moving into an area believed to be associated with this number 2 al Qaeda leader. We're just getting this new video in from al-Jazeera. Look at this. These are Pakistani paramilitary forces. They're moving out, moving towards this so-called no man's land, this very rugged frontier area in western Pakistan. They're moving in not only on the ground, but in the air as well, getting ready for what is expected to be a significant air assault with daybreak just a few hours from now along the border.

The hunt continuing for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number 2 al Qaeda leader. He's believed to be in this area. There has been fierce resistance from supporters of al Qaeda. That suggests to Pakistani and U.S. officials that a high value target is there. Precisely what President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan told our Aaron Brown just a few hours ago in Islamabad. Ash-har Quraishi is on the scene for us as well. Our Islamabad bureau chief, he's joining us now by videophone. Ash-har, tell our viewers what you know precisely right now.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI, CNN ISLAMABAD BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Wolf, these operations began earlier in the week. Just to go back over what exactly happened, it was first information that was given to paramilitary troops in this this area, in south (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and they called in the tribal elders in the area to try and negotiate a surrender of suspects, what they called foreign terrorists, supposedly.

That did not happen. When they went into this area, they come under heavy gun fire from all around. They were basically ambushed, which led to casualties to paramilitary troops. Pakistan's army went in with heavy guns later, a quick action forced by taking in helicopter gunships as well as artillery. They announced over loud speakers for women and children to get out of this area known as Kalusha (ph) in south (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

They evacuated the area, and they began pounding the area and were met with stiff resistance from these al Qaeda fighters. We were told by intelligence sources that more than 200 al Qaeda fighters are in this area that's been cordoned off. The Pakistani troops have basically surrounded them all around. This is what they describe as about 25, 30-kilometer perimeter in this area. And they say that this is basically ongoing.

We're getting more information from our intelligence sources as to what exactly led to this operation. Initially, as Aaron Brown had spoken to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, earlier on, they described the reasoning behind the belief that this is what they called a high-value target. It was based on the intensity, the strength of the resistance they were getting.

But we're also getting indications from intelligence sources that some of the people that were apprehended in these earlier operations in the same area, in their interrogations by intelligence officials here in Pakistan, they gave information to those officials that indicated Ayman al-Zawahiri was amidst this group of al Qaeda fighters. That is part of the intelligence that they say they have that indicates that he is there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm told by government sources, Ash-har, that Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri often travel together, but then again often they didn't. The assumption, I assume right now, is that Osama bin Laden is not holed up in this area together with Ayman al-zawahiri?

QURAISHI: Those are the indications we're getting initially from the sources we have in the military close to this operation as well as the intelligence sources. They say they haven't gotten any indication through the interrogations, through the intelligence on the ground to indicate that Osama bin Laden himself might be in with these 200 or so al Qaeda fighters that are holed up in this area right now. We are getting the indication that Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri is there.

It is unclear as to how often Osama bin Laden or Ayman al- Zawahiri travel together. There have been news tapes released by the Arabic News Channel in recent months showing them walking in rocky terrain, that some speculated might be northwest Pakistan or anywhere in Afghanistan and also unclear as to when that was taken. Some people we've spoken to suggest it was not shot at the time that it was actually aired. And so it's difficult to say when the last time was that these two men were together and if they are, in fact, together at this time or even if Osama bin Laden may be nearby. But right now, the indications from our sources are that they're really concentrating on the fact that they say Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number 2, is involved in this battle with Pakistani forces.

BLITZER: What time is it right now where you are? How much time is there before daybreak?

QURAISHI: Well, it's just after 2:00 a.m., close to 2:30 actually, just ten minutes before 2:30. So we're looking at a couple of hours. Daybreak just before 6:00 a.m. Local time here. It will be a few hours before daybreak. That's another concern we've been hearing from military sources that are involved in this operation. It is very dark. They're not sure how tight the cordon is and whether or not they've been able to really block off all of the possible escape routes for these fighters that are holed up in this area, these compounds, six or seven buildings, they say. It's very, very difficult terrain, and it's very difficult especially in the pitch black, to really see what's going on around them. So that's one concern, that they're waiting for daybreak to bring in some more guns and to go in and see what exactly they've been able to accomplish so far -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ash-har Quraishi reporting for us from Islamabad. Thanks very much, Ash-har. Stand by, we'll be getting back to you. We'll take another quick break. Peter Bergen, who's met with Osama bin Laden, interviewed Osama bin Laden, he's going to join us right after this break.



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