ISLAMABAD, Sep 13 (Reuters) Fierce fighting in a militant infested tribal region underscored Western fears of an al Qaeda threat radiating from Pakistan as US officials met President Pervez Musharraf for talks today.
Amid growing doubts over Musharraf's grip on power, with elections looming, visiting Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte heaped praise on Pakistan's counter-terrorism efforts, before meeting the general who took control after a coup in 1999.
Negroponte headed a delegation aimed at developing long-term ties with Pakistan covering business, energy, education and defence, but he was also accompanied by Dell L Dailey, U.S. ambassador at large and counter-terrorism coordinator.
After the talks, Musharraf, in a foreign ministry statement, reaffirmed ''Pakistan's firm resolve to fight extremism and terrorism''.
Helicopter gunships and artillery, according to an army spokesman, killed scores of militants in Waziristan, a hotbed of al Qaeda and Taliban support on the Afghan border, during the two days Negroponte has been in town.
Such operations have frequently coincided with visits by American officials in the past, prompting suspicions that action against militants tends to be on-off. Even if Pakistan's resolve isn't under question, its capabilities frequently are.
A wave of suicide attacks, mainly targeting Pakistani security forces, have killed more than 250 people in bombings in the past two months.
And militants in Waziristan are holding hostage more than 250 soldiers, tribal paramilitary and police personnel, including 12 taken captive yesterday in the nearby town of Bannu.
ELECTION DISTRACTION Yet, General Musharraf's immediate priority, with his popularity plummeting and faced with a Supreme Court that might uphold constitutional challenges, is getting re-elected.
Negroponte skirted Pakistan's fevered political situation, merely saying that Washington wanted to see a smooth, democratic political transition in the 160-million strong Muslim nation.
But there are fears in the United States, Britain and Germany that political difficulties could divert their Pakistani ally at a time when al Qaeda planners based in the tribal lands are plotting fresh strikes in Western cities.
''The terrorist threat in the border areas is of paramount concern to many countries,'' a Western diplomat in Islamabad said.
''They want Musharraf to resolve the political situation and move back into focus on this danger as soon as possible. There is huge concern that Pakistan is being distracted by its internal situation,'' the diplomat said.
Nine months ago, in his last job as US intelligence chief, Negroponte spoke of the global threat posed by al Qaeda regrouping in Pakistan, the need to eliminate safe havens for the Taliban in Pakistani tribal areas, and he described the country as ''a major source of Islamic extremism''.
An al Qaeda scare gripped Germany this month after police arrested three suspects and said they were hunting for 10 others believed to have been involved in plots to launch ''massive bomb attacks'' targeting US installations there.
The men arrested had trained at camps in Pakistan, according to German police.
Visits to Pakistan by Islamist militants have featured regularly in British investigations too -- most notably in the cases of two of suicide bombers involved in the July 7, 2005 attacks on London.
REUTERS RAR AS2050