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Pakistan says it struck an Al Qaeda hideout

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Pakistan said yesterday that an operation involving helicopter gunships and thousands of troops destroyed a major Al Qaeda hideout and led to the arrests of 21 suspected militants in a remote northwestern tribal region near Afghanistan.

Lieutenant General Safdar Hussain, the army commander responsible for antiterrorism operations in northwestern Pakistan, told reporters that foreigners and ''some important men are included among the captured people," although he refused to reveal identities or nationalities.

The Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda and terrorists has been destroyed and the back of Al Qaeda and terrorists has been broken in the tribal areas because terrorist activities were carried out from here," he said.

The operation coincided with a visit by President General Pervez Musharraf to the United States, where he said Pakistan is winning the war on terror.

''We are on the winning side because Al Qaeda 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 US, Afghan, and UN officials over cross-border militant attacks on targets inside Afghanistan, where violence has escalated ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Musharraf said 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."

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