Fierce fighting in Pakistan's Waziristan; 68 killed

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ISLAMABAD, Oct 7 (Reuters) Pakistani soldiers backed by helicopter gunships killed 48 pro-Taliban militants but lost 20 of their own men during fierce fighting in a tribal area close to the Afghan border, a military official said today.

The fighting began when militants ambushed a military convoy near Mir Ali town in North Waziristan on Saturday night, hours after US ally President Pervez Musharraf swept the most votes in a presidential election.

Casualties mounted as the army struck back and fresh clashes broke out in other areas close to Mir Ali, a town known as an al Qaeda haunt, and the fighting continued till evening, a military official said.

Pakistan has seen a wave of violence since July, when a peace pact with militants broke down in North Waziristan and army commandos stormed a radical mosque in the capital, Islamabad.

The violence has reinforced opposition among many Pakistanis to Musharraf's support for the US-led war on terrorism.

Musharraf has said terrorism and extremism are the biggest challenges the country faces and has called for reconciliation among political parties to tackle it.

Troops used heavy artillery and helicopter gunships to attack militants positions in mountains after the ambush on Saturday evening, according to army spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad.

Residents had said earlier they had seen a military build-up, apparently in preparation for an offensive against the al Qaeda-linked militants.

Waziristan is a hotbed of support for Taliban and al Qaeda militants, who fled to the region after US-led forces drove them out of Afghanistan in late 2001.

Militants in neighbouring South Waziristan are still holding about 225 soldiers captured at the end of August.

REUTERS PDT KN2046

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