Militants kill 18 Pakistani soldiers in Waziristan

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MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, Sep 18 (Reuters) Islamist militants have killed 18 Pakistani soldiers in the restive North Waziristan tribal region, intelligence officials said today.

The soldiers, including commandos, were killed on Sunday night in the same area near the Afghan border where officials said 16 militants were killed in fighting that began when militants attacked a security post late that day.

''Villagers found the bodies of the slain soldiers and reported it to army. Most of them were shot dead. Some of them had their throats cut,'' an intelligence official told Reuters.

Military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said 15 soldiers were killed in the fighting that began late on Sunday and continued on Monday.

Attacks on the security forces have been surging since July when a peace deal with militants broke down in North Waziristan and the army assaulted a radical Islamabad mosque, known for its links with the militants.

The soldiers were killed in the Shawal area, 70 km southwest of Miranshah, the main town of the North Waziristan region, a hotbed of support for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The violence comes as army chief and President General Pervez Musharraf is preparing to try to win another term. Militants have tried to kill Musharraf, an important US ally, at least twice.

Last Thursday, 16 commandos were killed in a suicide attack on their canteen at a camp near Islamabad.

Two suicide bombers killed 25 people, many of them staff at the military's main intelligence agency, on September 4 in Rawalpindi, where the army has its headquarters.

In neighbouring South Waziristan, militants are still holding about 250 soldiers who were captured late last month as they travelled in a convoy.

The militants are demanding security forces pull out of the area and release some captured comrades.

Tribal elders have been trying to negotiate the release of the soldiers and one elder said today he was optimistic at least some of the soldiers would be released on condition security forces promised to move out of three areas.

''We hope that the militants will release all or at least half of them tomorrow,'' said elder Maulana Merajuddin.

REUTERS ARB KP1552

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