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Associated Press

ANGORE ADDA, Pakistan (AP) - Pakistani soldiers swooped down on an al-Qaida mountain hideout in the country's forbidding tribal region Thursday, killing 12 suspected terrorists and capturing 18 others in the military's largest-ever offensive against Osama bin Laden's network.

It was not clear whether any senior al-Qaida figures were among the dead or captured, who all appeared to be foreigners, army officials said. The area in Pakistan's fiercely autonomous Waziristan region has long been considered a likely hiding place for bin Laden, a Saudi exile, and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian.

A battle was ongoing late Thursday, and authorities believed several dozen al-Qaida fugitives were still in the area, said Maj. Gen. Ameer Faisal, the commander of the operation.

"The operation will continue until they are captured or killed," he said.

Six hours after the 5:30 a.m. raid, Cobra attack helicopters circled over the site of the fighting, some firing machine guns. At least 200 soldiers were present.

An Associated Press journalist taken to the scene by the military saw four bodies, their faces covered with light-colored cloth. The bodies were lying in the open under small trees on a craggy mountain ridge, near an area on the same mountain that the army said the al-Qaida fighters used as a hideout.

Faisal said eight other suspected al-Qaida fighters were lying in an area about 100 yards away that was too dangerous to enter. Most of the dead appeared to have Central Asian features, Faisal said.

Ten blindfolded al-Qaida suspects were led away with their hands tied behind their backs. The military said 18 suspects were detained in all.

At least two Pakistani soldiers were killed and two wounded in the fighting, some when the trapped suspects lobbed grenades at them as the soldiers approached their mountain hideout.

In the afternoon, gunfire could be heard coming from a group of mud-walled compounds where Faisal said "dozens" of al-Qaida suspects had taken refuge after fleeing the hideout.

Soldiers seized hand grenades, AK-47 assault rifles, anti-tank mines, audio cassettes and other documents during the operation.

Thursday's raid came on the day U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca had been due in Pakistan for talks on the war on terrorism. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry announced the visit was postponed for "scheduling reasons."

Several high-profile Pakistani operations against al-Qaida have taken place at the same time as major international diplomatic events, but Pakistani officials have insisted the timing has been purely coincidental.

Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali is now in the United States to meet with senior U.S. officials, and President Gen. Pervez Musharraf recently returned from the United States.

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