Pakistan Battle Pierces Solitude of Tribal AreaWANA, Pakistan, March 20 — Viewed from a helicopter, there is little that differentiates a cluster of farming villages just outside this remote town near the border with Afghanistan from the desolate surrounding countryside. Small patches of irrigated fields appear as specks of green in a sea of brown hills and fields.
Homes are mud-brick fortresses, low buildings surrounded by walls that rise 20 feet, each compound buffered from the next by distance — usually at least half a mile.
This is the territory where a battle is raging between more than 7,000 Pakistani troops and 400 to 500 surrounded Islamic militants. The fighting, which erupted unexpectedly during a government raid on Tuesday, grew so fierce that Pakistani officials concluded that their forces had surrounded a top terrorist leader, and intelligence reports had put Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the area.
But there was never any corroboration, and on Saturday, Pakistani military officials began to back away from the possibility that the trapped leader was Dr. Zawahiri. In a briefing for journalists at a military base here, Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, the commander of Pakistani Army forces in the border area, broadened the range of possibilities, adding a senior Uzbek militant, Quaran Ata, or even a local Pakistani tribesman, Nek Muhammad.
"It could be Quaran Ata," General Hussain said. "It could be Zawahiri. It could be Nek Muhammad. He could be very important for these people."
As Super Cobra helicopter gunships circled overhead, General Hussain said Pakistani forces had intercepted radio communications in Chechen and Uzbek and in a few cases Arabic, and had captured more than 100 militants. He said one intercept was a request for four men to carry an important leader who had been wounded and 12 men to guard him. He would not say what the prisoners were telling interrogators.
He said his forces continued to encounter stiff resistance, with at least 34 Pakistani soldiers and 20 militants killed so far.
On Saturday, local residents said a helicopter gunship killed 12 civilians, including 4 women and 6 children, as they tried to drive out of the area. Military officials said the civilians were mistaken for militants.
In the base's parking lot, he showed journalists the body of a dead fighter and at least 10 bound and blindfolded men he said had been captured that day. The journalists were not allowed to speak to the men, who were being held in a truck. Most wore traditional Pakistani clothes and Muslim prayer caps.
The Pakistani military flew two dozen journalists here for a tightly controlled, two-hour visit and a military briefing. It was a rare glimpse of the isolated region where Dr. Zawahiri, and some say Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda's leader, may be hiding.
Foreign journalists are banned from entering these perilous tribal areas without a special government permit and a military escort. Since the fighting began Tuesday, the area around Wana has been sealed to even Pakistanis.
Famed as a mountainous haven for smugglers, kidnappers and conservative tribes living in a world that time has passed by, Pakistan's tribal areas appear far more developed than towns just over the border in Afghanistan. Here in Wana, with its army base, roads are paved, electrical power lines run through town and a handful of factories can be seen.
Local officials describe it as a thriving market town, with a resident population of 50,000, and 70,000 more people coming in to do business daily. Wana is also the administrative center for the South Waziristan tribal area, the largest and poorest of seven such areas in Pakistan.
Afghan officials have long complained that Pakistan was not making a strong effort to find militants in these tribal areas. The Pakistani Army deployed 70,000 troops in the tribal areas in 2001 to hunt down militants, but the hundreds of militants fighting here appear to have arrived after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Pakistani officials say.
The army increased its efforts recently, after two assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf in December. Pakistani officials say they are also under enormous pressure from Washington to find Mr. bin Laden.
The sheer number of the militants involved in the fighting indicates that they were able to live here because of significant, if passive, local support, Pakistani officials say. Only a small minority of the local people may actively help them, the officials say, but most refuse to inform the government of their whereabouts.
On both sides of the border, the Pakistani and American militaries have begun huge operations to win the trust of the local population in the hope of turning up information about Mr. bin Laden's whereabouts. Roads are being paved and schools are being built in the hope that the two armies can show they produce more concrete benefits for people here than hard-line Islamic clerics.
"It's only the economic well-being of these people, which will help with what we are fighting," said Brig. Shaukat Ali Khan, a Pakistani officer based here.
But suspicion of any kind of outsiders and the gulf between the tribal areas and the rest of Pakistan was evident on Saturday afternoon.
Small girls tending sheep and wizened old men sporting long white beards stared suspiciously at both Pakistani Army convoys and the foreign visitors.
Pakistan's tribal areas, which hold six million people and cover 10,000 square miles of mountainous terrain, have some of the country's highest rates of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition. They are still largely governed by strict tribal codes that focus on honor, revenge and feuds.
Almost all the people in these areas are members of fiercely independent ethnic Pashtun tribes, which also inhabit much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.
That is because British colonial mapmakers, intending to use the tribal areas as a buffer between the Russian and British Empires, attached a part to Pakistan instead of giving all to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, most of the Pakistani Army comes from Punjab, the country's largest and most prosperous province, which borders India. These troops speak a different language from that of the tribal villagers.
Pakistani officials say the United States helped radicalize this area in the 1980's. During that time, as foreign Muslim fighters joined Afghans in trying to oust Soviet forces, the United States indirectly financed training camps and hard-line religious schools in the tribal areas that churned out young men eager to fight. Twenty years later, their students are convinced that they must defend Pakistan and other Muslim countries from American invasions.
Some appear to be involved in the current battle near here. Pakistani officials said radio monitors listening to the fighters were picking up foreign languages, but also Pashto.
The Pashtun code of honor, Pashtunwali, may help explain the willingness of local people to join the fight.
Members of a local tribe appear to have taken in militants as guests. A tribe must fight and die for a guest it agrees to protect. Failing to do so can shame a tribe for generations.
Muhammad Azam Khan, the political agent and top Pakistani civilian official in South Waziristan, said the government must work with tribal elders and religious leaders to change 25 years of thinking in the tribal areas. After praising Islamist fighters for driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the American and Pakistani government have abruptly reversed course.
"One fine morning, you wake and say this is terrorism," he said.
Also, while tribes in neighboring Afghanistan have lived under the Taliban and seen its excesses, those on the Pakistani side of the border idealize strict Islamic law, a system they have never experienced.
Mr. Khan said changing Pakistan's tribal areas would take time.
"This is a two-and-a-half-decade-old problem," he said, as he stood in the heavily fortified army compound here. "You won't solve it with a single raid."
American troops in Afghanistan, meanwhile, surrounded and searched a village in central Uruzgan Province, where two American soldiers and one Afghan soldier had been killed Thursday. The three were on a cordon-and-search operation of a compound when one or more assailants opened fire, said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the American-led military coalition in Afghanistan. Two American soldiers were also wounded.
American planes — an A-10 attack jet and a B-1 bomber — bombed the village on Friday, Colonel Hilferty said.
Reuters quoted unidentified Afghan officials as saying that six civilians were killed in the bombing, but that report could not be confirmed. Abdul Basir, the deputy police chief for the province's Charcheno district, said he did not know how many casualties there were because he and other Afghan officials had not been able to gain access to the village. But he said they could see that two or three houses had been destroyed by the bombing.
Mr. Basir said American troops had surrounded and cordoned off the village after sending the women out. Colonel Hilferty said the soldiers were conducting "sensitive site exploitation" in which they were searching house by house, drawer by drawer. He said that six men had been taken into custody and that dozens of other men were being detained for questioning.
Amy Waldman contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, for this article.