Pakistani forces kill 20 militants, army says

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ISLAMABAD, Oct 7 (Reuters) Pakistani soldiers backed by helicopter gunships killed 20 pro-Taliban militants in an attack today in the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, a military spokesman said.

The army attack came hours after staunch US ally President Pervez Musharraf swept the most votes in a presidential election.

''The operation is still on. Militants hold positions in the mountains and we're targeting them with artillery and helicopter gunships,'' said military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad.

Twenty militants had been killed and 15 wounded, he said.

Arshad said the attack was launched after militants ambushed a military convoy near Mir Ali town, 24 km east of the region's main town of Miranshah town yesterday evening.

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

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.

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 PD BD1214

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