The 25-member tribal peace council is to travel to the region on Monday morning under the protection of a white flag, said Brigadier Mahmood Shah, chief of security for the area.

 

Fighting would stop while the council was negotiating, though Shah refused to call it a ceasefire.

  

The council will be carrying a list of three government demands: that the elders free 12 soldiers and two government officials taken captive earlier this week; that they hand over tribesmen involved in the fighting; and that they kick out any foreigners or show the military where to track them down.

  

"These tribesmen must hand over all the wanted people, or the operation will proceed," Shah told journalists in Peshawar, the provincial capital. 

 

DNA tests 

 

On Sunday, military officials sent six bodies of suspected Chechen fighters from Wana to a hospital in Rawalpindi, a city near the capital Islamabad, for DNA tests.

  

"We will do DNA test on the bodies of these Chechens to confirm their identity," said a military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  

Pakistani forces have pressed
on with the offensive

Earlier, US-backed Pakistani forces pressed on with the offensive against suspected al-Qaida and Taliban members in the mountains of South Waziristan near the Afghan border.

Early reports indicated the suspects may include a "high-value" target.

Dozens of people were killed in battles since Tuesday and civilian casualties were mounting.

Local officials said 13 people, including women and children, died when a helicopter gunship fired on two vehicles on Saturday. 

Anger is growing among the heavily armed tribesmen whose support would be invaluable in the hunt for al-Qaida's leaders.

Voluntary support

"People are very angry," said newspaper editor and regional expert Rahim Allah Yusuzai. "This is an excessive use of force."

"They will not get any support voluntarily now, they will force people to cooperate which will not achieve any result," Yusuzai added. 

One resident in the dusty town of Wana, who gave his name as Akbar, said: "Tribal people are angry. Their houses and villages are being attacked. They have no option but to fight back."

On Sunday, Pakistani commanders said they had surrounded several hundred foreign al-Qaida supporters and their Pakistani tribal allies, but doubted al-Qaida number two Ayman al-Zawahri, Usama bin Ladin's deputy, was among them as some officials had suspected last week.

"First there was small-arms fire, perhaps targeting the helicopters," one witness near the fighting in Pakistan's wild tribal west, said of Sunday's firing.

"Then the helicopters hit back. We heard loud explosions," he said. 

Botched raid

Pakistani General Safdar Husayn has sent in 5000 troops and set up a 60km cordon in the rock and scrub of Waziristan after 16 of his men died in Tuesday's failed raid on a well-established and well-fortified mud-walled compound.

At least 13 civilians were killed
in an attack on Saturday

But he says his troops are facing "extremely professional" opponents in almost impossible terrain.

"They are taking us from every direction whenever our troops have moved in, and we are not knowing if the locals are with us," he said. "We are practically chasing shadows.

"I am determined to make sure I punish this Yargul Kheil tribe and make an example for the whole of South Waziristan," Husayn threatened. "I am going to wipe it out, and I am going to flush them out."

Dead or alive

Another military spokesman, Major-General Shaukat Sultan, said: "The mission is to get these people dead or alive.
 

It is unsure whether al-Qaida's
top men are holed up in the area

More than 100 suspected fighters have been captured since Tuesday. 

Detainees have been sent to the provincial capital, Peshawar, for interrogation. The army displayed about 40 of them at a military base in Wana, crammed into a truck, blindfolded and with hands bound. The corpse of another detainee lay wrapped in a white shroud.

Security officials said prisoners included Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and ethnic Uighurs from China's predominantly Muslim Xinjiang province, but say it is difficult to distinguish the foreigners from locals, as some have lived in the region for a long time and speak the local Pashto language.

Residents flee

An estimated 2500 residents remained in the villages in the targeted area. About 30,000 civilians are believed to have already fled. 

"The operation is continuing ... the mission is to get these people dead or alive"

Major-General Shaukat Sultan,
military spokesman

Afghan commanders in south-east border provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost, facing Pakistan's South Waziristan and North Waziristan, said US forces had stepped up activities in recent days.

"There is increased activity by American forces in Paktika province and along the Afghan-Pakistan border," border commander Zakim Khan told AFP.

"The Americans have increased their activities in Khost recently," Khost governor Hakim Taniwal said.