Pakistan's army has destroyed a major al-Qaida hide-out and arrested 21 suspected militants in a remote northwestern tribal region near Afghanistan, a top military commander said on Tuesday.
"It is the biggest-ever operation, which is still going on in North Waziristan," Lt Gen Safdar Hussain, the top army commander responsible for anti-terrorism operations in northwestern Pakistan, told a news conference.
Hussain said foreigners and "some important men are included among the captured people," although he refused to reveal identities or nationalities.
He said the troops seized a cache of weapons including bombs, detonators and rockets, as well as communications equipment that was used to exchange messages with militants in Afghanistan and propaganda CDs and literature during the four-day operation.
The operation coincided with a visit by Pakistan's President Gen Pervez Musharraf to the United States.
Although he is an ally of Washington, Musharraf's government has faced criticism from US, Afghan and United Nations officials over cross-border militant attacks at targets inside Afghanistan,
where violence has escalated ahead of key parliamentary elections set for September 18.
The latest operation came in the same area where suspected militants on Monday slit the throats of three people and threw their bodies in a drain in a village east of Miran Shah, on suspicion that they were spies.
According to residents and officials, a note pinned on one of the bodies read, "Anybody who works as a spy for America will have to face the same fate."
Militants in the past three years are believed to have killed about 70 tribal elders and their associates for helping Pakistan's army in counterterrorism operations.
Hussain said more than 3,500 troops and helicopter gunships were dispatched on Tuesday to three areas of North Waziristan after confirmation of reports that al-Qaida militants were hiding there.
Some people were arrested from a compound near a religious school set up by a senior Taliban commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani, he said.
Hussain 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 Taliban.
"We dismantled this communication center and seized a large number of CDs and communication equipment," Hussain said.
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.
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.
The latest operation began as Musharraf left on Sunday for New York to meet US President George W Bush and other world leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session.
Musharraf says he has offered to construct a security fence at the border to deter incursions by militants and drug traffickers from Afghanistan.