Curfew lifted in NW Pakistan after fighting eases

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MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, Oct 16 (Reuters) The Pakistani army lifted a curfew in a northwestern region on Tuesday, a week after about 250 people were killed in fighting with militant Islamist tribesmen, tribal elders and officials said.

The fighting, which began on October. 6 and went on for several days, was some of the heaviest in years, and came as army chief and important US ally General Pervez Musharraf was trying to secure another term as president.

Many people were wounded and thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting -- in which government forces used artillery, helicopter gunships and fighter jets -- near the town of Mir Ali in the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border.

North and South Waziristan are hotbeds of support for Taliban and al Qaeda militants, many of whom fled to the area after US-backed forces ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

The clashes in North Waziristan intensified last week when militants ambushed a military convoy near Mir Ali, and the casualties mounted as the army struck back using ground troops, Military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said the curfew had been lifted to help civilians while authorities were considering a request from the militants for a ceasefire.

Tribal leaders said the situation was returning to normal after talks between a council of elders and the militants.

''There is now peace in the area,'' said Maulana Faizullah, a tribal leader who was involved in the negotiations. ''The Taliban will not attack security forces unless they are attacked.'' Fiercely independent ethnic Pashtun tribes in the area have never come under the authority of the central government, which adopted a system of autonomy for the rugged border lands from British colonial rulers.

Fighting in North Waziristan, and violence in other parts of northwest Pakistan, has intensified sharply since July when a nine-month pact broke down and commandos stormed a mosque complex in Islamabad supported by militants from Waziristan.

The militants, loathe to see security forces impose a presence in the area, have been demanding that troops remove checkposts.

Faizullah said the government had agreed to remove some checkposts and open two main roads.

But Arshad said no checkposts had been removed and traffic on the roads was only open only for civilians.

Militants in South Waziristan are holding about 225 troops they captured at the end of August.

Musharraf says ending terrorism and extremism is Pakistan's biggest challenge.

He swept an electoral college presidential vote on October. 6 but can not declare victory until the Supreme Court rules on the legality of his re-election while army chief.

REUTERS GL RK1506

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