ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistani troops in the country's tribal areas recently discovered the location of Al Qaeda's number two but "missed" a chance to capture him, according to the politician who oversees Pakistan's Frontier Corps.
Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior ministry chief, told a group of foreign journalists that the military obtained evidence Ayman al-Zawahiri's wife was in the Mohmand agency, near the border with Afghanistan.
"We did raids and traces there," said Malik, who manages the underfunded front-line forces fighting militants in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. "Certainly we had traced him in one place, but we missed him. Certainly he is moving in Mohmand Agency and Kunar, mostly in Kunar and Paktika," referring to two areas across the border in Afghanistan. He did not give specific details of when the raids took place.
Publicly, U.S. officials will not comment on Malik's claims, but privately senior officials tell ABC News they are skeptical and have seen no evidence that Zawahiri was narrowly missed.
Malik claimed that that "50-60" foreign al Qaeda leaders were currently hiding in Pakistan, and admitted to some frustration over Pakistan's inability to capture the most wanted terrorists in the world. "Whoever's it is, his strategy is obviously better than ours," he said.
Malik's assertions come despite criticism by the Untied States and some in Pakistan that the military is not doing enough to combat militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This week the army announced it would temporarily and provisionally halt two campaigns against militants for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Historically, Ramadan has been peaceful, and Malik said the Pakistani military would be judged negatively by Pakistanis if it had not stopped the attacks.
If the operations continued, he said, "we will have a bad image as a Muslim state."
But he insisted that the military will respond to any offensive by the Taliban. "If there is one shot fired, we will fire back at them nine times," he said. "If there is any movement – any killing of a civilian, or an army person -- no mercy. There is no ambiguity here."
Malik has overseen one of the more aggressive campaigns against the Pakistani Taliban in the last year. For almost four full weeks the Frontier Corps, which is led by army commanders but overseen by the civilian Interior Ministry, had used helicopter gunships, artillery and mortars to kill more than 550 militants in Bajour, along the Afghanistan border, according to military spokesmen.
Malik also "banned" the Taliban in Pakistan, which he called "one and the same with al Qaeda," freezing their bank accounts and establishing a sentence of 10 years for anyone who funds them.
"Either we hand over Pakistan to these Talibans, or we fight back. And our policy is to fight back," he said.
But Taliban spokesmen joked how they don't use bank accounts, and many military analysts who have followed the Taliban since its inception argue the current military campaigns are not effective.