KUNDI GARH, Pakistan, Apr 30 (Reuters) The remote Shawal valley in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region has long been known as a haven for al Qaeda militants and their allies.
Standing on one of the highest summits in the pine-dotted valley, Pakistani military officials say that Shawal no longer offers sanctuary to militants after security forces gained a foothold in the area last year.
''We have set up our posts at almost every kilometre and a half,'' Brigadier Imtiaz Wyne, military commander in Shawal, said as two of his soldiers sat in a post keeping a watchful eye on the unmarked border with Afghanistan.
''I have now almost full control over the area,'' he told journalists who made a brief weekend visit to the area arranged by the military.
Shawal is a beautiful upland valley, with forests and meadows where tribesmen graze their flocks in summer. The valley, at about 1,300 metres, is criss-crossed by ravines and ridges soaring up to 3,400 metres.
While hardly any signs of habitation could be seen on Kundi Garh, one of the highest summits overlooking the valley, officials said many militants, including Arabs, Central Asians and Chechens fleeing army operations in neighbouring South Waziristan had taken refuge in the valley's forests.
''This was a major sanctuary for the militants,'' an intelligence official said.
But Wyne said the army had launched up to 10 operations in Shawal since it secured the area over the past year.
''Shawal is now almost clear of miscreants,'' he told Reuters.
But despite the military's claims, clashes between security forces and militants go on unabated in rugged Waziristan.
Yesterday, militants ambushed a convoy of paramilitary troops on the outskirts of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan.
There were no casualties and officials said such attacks had become almost routine in North Waziristan.
''We have become used to such clashes. Hardly a day passes when we don't have such clashes,'' an intelligence official said in Miranshah.
CHASING MILITANT LEADERS Military officials say they have killed 324 Islamist militants in North Waziristan and lost 56 soldiers since the middle of last year.
Among the militants killed was Muhsin Musa Matwali Atwah, an Egyptian al Qaeda member wanted for involvement in the 1998 bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa.
The rugged mountains and forest-clad gorges on the Afghan frontier provide a natural hideout for militants and many believe that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his key aide Ayman al-Zawahiri could be hiding in the region.
Pakistani officials say they had no information on the whereabouts of the two al Qaeda leaders.
''We always keep a list of the wanted men with us and whenever we find anyone of them here, we go after him,'' the intelligence official said, citing the death of Atwah and Abu Marwan Hadid al-Suri, a man believed to a ''bag man'' for the families of al Qaeda fighters, killed in the Bajaur tribal region this month.
''We are basically chasing leaders of the militants more actively then their foot-soldiers. These leaders are the real instigators and we are after them,'' he said.
About 1,000 foreign militants from Arab and Central Asian countries are operating in Pakistan's tribal belt, he said.
Afghan officials say militants use Pakistan's lawless tribal belt as a springboard for attacks in Afghanistan.
Pakistan says it is doing all it can to stop the cross-border movement of militants and has urged Afghanistan to do more to seal its side of the border.
REUTERS CH PM1526