Pakistan army lashes out in Waziristan, toll rises

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MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, Oct 10 (Reuters) Pakistani artillery bombarded Taliban and al Qaeda positions today as villagers buried relatives killed by an air strike during heavy fighting in a tribal area near the Afghan border.

There were no official estimates of the casualties from Tuesday's air strike, though residents and intelligence officials in the area reckoned up to 50 people had been killed, some of them shopping at a village bazaar.

If true, it would take the tally to about 250 since the fighting escalated on Saturday night after an attack on an army convoy near Mir Ali, a town where al Qaeda tracks have been often found before.

The only people left in Hormuz, one of a cluster of villages near Mir Ali, were holding funerals. Other families fled the conflict zone in the North Waziristan tribal region.

''One of my aunts and her son were killed,'' said Akhtar Azam, whose house in Hormuz village was hit.

The thump of artillery shells could be heard in the main town of Miranshah, coming from the vicinity of Mir Ali, 25 km away. Scores of rounds were fired in the pre-dawn barrage, residents said.

Militants also fired a couple of rockets onto the military runway near Miranshah's fort, but there were no casualties reported.

The last bout of intense fighting in North Waziristan coincided with a visit by US President George W Bush to Islamabad in March 2006.

ON SHORT FUSE Over the past few months soldiers and paramilitary troops have been targeted by suicide bombers, blown up by roadside bombs, kidnapped and had their throats slit.

Militants in South Waziristan humiliated the army by taking captive about 250 soldiers in late August. More than 25 were released later, but this week three were killed, and there were threats of more killings unless the army acceded to demands.

Morale has suffered among security forces stationed in Waziristan.

Sick of being on the receiving end, the Pakistan army lashed back last weekend, unleashing fighter jets, helicopter gunships, artillery and ground troops on militants.

The recovery of comrades' decapitated, charred corpses fuelled anger in the army, according to a senior intelligence officer.

''It was too much, We couldn't take it any more,'' he said.

''That's why air power is now being used against them.'' Hitherto, the army had exercised more restraint because it did not want to be seen as fighting its own people -- an accusation that is already sapping morale.

In videotapes released last month, al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahri appealed to their followers to rise up against President Pervez Musharraf and his army.

The army's confrontation with the militants intensified after the storming of the Red Mosque in the capital Islamabad in July to crush an armed student movement led by a rebel cleric.

A ceasefire that had been in place for just 10 months in North Waziristan broke down at around the same time, and the army is now paying the penalty for allowing militants to consolidate their grip on the region during the truce, according to critics.

REUTERS PD KN1718

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