Fierce fighting in Waziristan as Negroponte visits Pakistan

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ISLAMABAD, Sep 13 (Reuters) The Pakistan army said it has killed scores of militants in a tribal region during two days of fighting that has coincided with a visit to Islamabad by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

Negroponte met President Pervez Musharraf today for talks that inevitably would have focussed on Pakistan's efforts to smash al Qaeda cells and curb Taliban support in Waziristan, a semi-autonomous tribal land on the border with Afghanistan.

Amid concern over Musharraf's hold on power, with elections looming, Negroponte heaped praise on Pakistan's campaign against terrorism in its own backyard soon after his arrival yesterday.

Musharraf's forces have suffered the humiliation of having more than 250 soldiers, tribal paramilitary and police personnel held captive by militants in Waziristan, including 12 taken hostage on Wednesday in the nearby town of Bannu.

Attacks have intensified in the two months since army commandos stormed a mosque in Islamabad where a Taliban-style movement had taken hold.

More than 250 people have been killed in the violence, which has mostly targeted security forces.

Negroponte noted that Pakistan had lost 1,000 soldiers fighting the militants since joining the war on terrorism six years ago, and also commented on the increased troop deployment in Waziristan after collapse of a 10-month-old peace agreement in July.

But Pakistan is bristling over a new law tying the release of future aid to certification by the US administration that its ally in the war on terrorism is getting results against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Yesterday, the military said it had killed up to 40 militants, using helicopter gunships and artillery to batter the guerrillas' hideouts in the hills of North Waziristan.

Clashes later broke out in Makeen area of South Waziristan and continued through the night.

Security officials told Reuters today that 10 soldiers had been killed, but an army spokesman could not confirm numbers.

''Militants carried out attacks on checkposts overnight and wounded 10 security personnel, and we have unconfirmed reports of between 25-30 militants killed in clashes,'' Major-General Waheed Arshad said.

''The fighting is still continuing and we have sent Cobra helicopter gunships and troops to the area,'' Arshad said referring to the clashes in South Waziristan.

REUTERS JT PM1417

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