Threatened by the prospect of a large-scale Pakistan military offensive to seize the suspects, tribal elders bowed to pressure and presented authorities with al-Qaida sympathisers on Monday.

"About 60% of those linked to al-Qaida or working as facilitators have been handed over to the local authorities," the official said.

The official did not say how many suspects had been detained, but security sources earlier said authorities were looking for about 90 people accused of offering shelter to al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives in the mountainous South Waziristan area along the Afghan border.

Afghan officials suspect tribesmen in South Waziristan provide sanctuary to militants involved in attacks against the US-led coalition and Afghan forces in the provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika.

Deadline over

The tribal elders handed over the accused over the past few days following a 20 February deadline given by the government last week.

The government earlier deployed thousands of troops for an operation into the area if tribal elders failed to hand over the suspects and those protecting them.

However, Information Minister Shaikh Rashid said on Monday that "no offensive has been launched so far".

"Troops have been deployed in the area to plug the entry of undesired elements," Rashid said.

No sign of Bin Ladin

"This step is part of Pakistan's commitment to the international community against terrorism"

Shaikh Rashid,
Information Minister

The minister on Sunday dismissed suggestions that beefing up of troops followed reports that al-Qaida chief Usama bin Ladin and his close associates had been spotted in the area.

"This step is not any individual specific but it is a part of Pakistan's commitment to the international community against terrorism."

The US military last week said an operation was being prepared on both sides of the border.

"We're moving in the direction of cooperative operations on both sides of the border - a hammer and anvil approach if you will," said Lt Gen David Barno, commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistani military officials said troops would conduct an operation whenever there was a requirement to do so.

"There has never been and there would never be any involvement of foreign troops in any operation on our side of the border," military spokesman Maj Gen Shaukat Sultan said on Sunday.

Border security

Tens of thousands of Pakistani troops have been deployed along the porous 1600km border for the past two years and the country has arrested more than 500 al-Qaida and Taliban suspects.

President Pervez Musharraf recently warned foreign militants hiding in the tribal belt to surrender or face the consequences.

Pakistani troops killed eight al-Qaida suspects and arrested 18 others in a major operation launched in South Waziristan in October.

The authorities have warned that those sheltering the suspects will be sentenced to seven years in jail and fined $26,300.