[It would be interesting to see more of these 156 caves, whether they are machined, like this one. From the clearly defined horizontal drill marks running down the walls and ceiling and the apparent smoothness of the cave floor, it is obvious that this cave was constructed by professional miners and stone craftsmen. This tunnel was not the work of a bunch of cave-dwelling hermits, using picks and hand tools. Was this done by bin Laden’s crew, or has this been constructed since then?]
Blankets were left strewn across the network of 156 caves, used by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy.
Zahid Hussain, Damadola
Pakistani forces have taken control of a warren of caves that served until recently as the nerve centre of the Taleban and al-Qaeda and sheltered Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command to Osama bin Laden.
“It was the main hub of militancy where al-Qaeda operatives had moved freely,” Major-General Tariq Khan, the Pakistan regional commander, said as he gave journalists a tour of Damadola yesterday.
The village, nestling among snow-capped peaks in the Bajaur region along the Afghan border, has been fought over for 16 months. It is the first time that the Pakistani Army has set foot in the village, which had long been dominated by the insurgents operating on the both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
“Al-Qaeda was there. They had occupied the ridges. There were 156 caves designed as a defensive complex,” said General Khan, head of the Frontier Corps responsible for Pakistan’s counter-insurgency campaign in the region. He said that his forces had killed 75 foreign and local militants and cleared a zone up to the Afghan border, and that the campaign against the insurgents was in its final stage.
The army began operations in Bajaur in August 2008 and claimed victory in February last year, only for the insurgents to seep back when the Government’s focus switched to Pakistani Taleban fighters in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan.
Journalists were shown caves strewn with blankets and pillows, left in haste as the army approached in January. The village has been largely destroyed by the fighting.
A large mud compound on a hilltop was once believed to be the hideout of al-Zawahiri, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, who was the subject of a $25 million (£18 million) bounty. “He has been spotted here by the local residents in the past,” said Colonel Nauman Saeed, an army commander.
Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor, narrowly escaped when missiles fired by a CIA drone struck a house in Damadola in January 2006.
According to officials he and some other al-Qaeda operatives had been attending a dinner but left just before the attack. The ruins of the house hit by the missiles were still present.
Pakistani officials and local residents said that al-Zawahiri had even married a local girl. “He would regularly travel between Bajaur and the Afghan province of Kunar,” Colonel Saeed said.
While the military has been showing off its gains many Taleban fighters and their leaders — including the main regional commander, Faqir Mohammad, have escaped the sweep and may try to return as they have done before. “I would give you a rough estimate that about 25 per cent must have gone across the border; another 10 or 15 per cent might have melted back into the areas of Swat, where they had come from,” General Khan said. “A substantial amount of them have been killed, but that is just an estimate.”