Lieutenant-General Safdar Hussain, the top army commander responsible for anti-terrorism operations in northwestern Pakistan, said more than 3500 troops and helicopters were dispatched on Tuesday to three areas of North Waziristan after confirmation of reports that al-Qaida fighters were hiding there.

Hussain said foreigners and "some important men are included among the captured people", although he refused to reveal identities or nationalities.

Some people were arrested from a compound near a religious school set up by a senior Taliban commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Hussain added.

He said Haqqani's driver, caught this week in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, led the military to the compound, which was being used to communicate messages inside Afghanistan in Arabic and Pashtu, the language spoken by most members of the Taliban.

"We dismantled this communication centre and seized a large number of CDs and communication equipment," Hussain said.

"As a result of this operation, a centre of al-Qaida and terrorists has been destroyed and the back of al-Qaida and terrorists has been broken in the tribal areas"

Safdar Hussain, 
Pakistani army commander

He said troops also arrested a junior government official from North Waziristan and a close relative of Maulana Nek Zaman, a lawmaker from a religious party, on suspicion of helping terrorists.

The al-Qaida hideout appeared to be a fairly sophisticated outpost, Hussain said, with communications equipment to contact insurgents 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 centre of al-Qaida and terrorists has been destroyed and the back of al-Qaida and terrorists has been broken in the tribal areas," he said.

Scene of violence

The latest operation comes in the same area where suspected fighters on Monday slit the throats of three people and threw their bodies in a drain on suspicion that they were spies.

Fighters in the past three years are believed to have killed about 70 tribal elders and their associates for helping Pakistan's army in counter-terrorism operations.

Pakistan has deployed about 80,000 troops in its tribal regions to stop remnants of al-Qaida and Taliban from sneaking into Pakistan or going back to Afghanistan, where US-led coalition forces and Afghan government targets are often attacked. 

Security fence

Musharraf has offered to build
security fence on Afghan border

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

"We are on the winning side because al-Qaida has been neutralised," 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."

Musharraf says he has offered to construct a security fence at the border to deter incursions by fighters and drug traffickers.

Although he is an ally of Washington, Musharraf's government has faced criticism from US, Afghan and UN officials over cross-border attacks at targets inside Afghanistan, where violence has escalated ahead of Sunday's elections for a new parliament.