MINGORA, Pakistan, Oct 29 (Reuters) Pakistani troops killed up to 60 Islamist militants during fierce fighting in the Swat valley in the country's northwest, the army said today, and the insurgents called a truce to recover their dead and wounded.
Troops firing artillery and backed by helicopter gunships yesterday battled militants led by a pro-Taliban cleric seeking to impose strict Islamic code in the scenic valley close to Pakistan's lawless tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.
''We heard big bangs the whole night. We don't know how many people were killed,'' one terrified resident of Charbagh, 3 5 km west of the valley's main town of Mingora, told Reuters.
Army spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said that, based on reports by police and the paramilitary Frontier Corps, up to 60 militants had been killed.
He had no reports of casualties among security forces, although residents saw at least nine dead paramilitaries.
The eruption of violence in Swat comes as the Supreme Court is hearing challenges to the re-election earlier this month of US ally President Pervez Musharraf.
It follows a suicide attack on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto that killed 139 people in the southern city of Karachi when she returned from self-imposed exile on October 18.
Islamist militants seeking to destabilise nuclear-armed Pakistan regard Musharraf and Bhutto as lackeys of the West.
There is speculation the pair, who have vowed to fight militancy and extremism, could share power after national elections due by January, although Bhutto is bitterly opposed to conservatives in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.
NATIONAL SURVIVAL ''There is a threat to the survival of our motherland. I want to put it on Pakistan's agenda. It's not an outsiders' war. It's our war because our people and soldiers are being killed,'' Bhutto told Reuters by telephone from her ancestral residence in southern Sindh province.
Militant activity has surged in Swat since pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazlullah launched an illegal FM radio station and urged a jihad, or Muslim holy war.
Fazlullah, known as ''Mullah Radio'', is de facto head of a pro-Taliban group, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) or Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad's Sharia Law.
He is a son-in-law of TNSM's founder Mullah Sufi Mohammad, who was captured in late 2001, after the movement sent thousands of fighters to Afghanistan in a vain attempt to help the Taliban repulse US-backed forces.
A suspected suicide attack that killed at least 21 people, mostly soldiers, last Thursday triggered the latest violence. A day later the militants killed seven civilians and decapitated three soldiers and three policemen.
Villagers said the militants had announced by radio and loudspeaker that a ceasefire had been agreed to allow funerals today for those killed in the fighting, although military officials said there was no formal truce.
Thousands fled their homes yesterday as the fighting intensified, and the exodus continued, residents said. They said paramilitary troops had asked them to leave the village of Kot Manglor, the scene of fighting yesterday.
Suicide and roadside bomb attacks on security forces have multiplied since July when commandos stormed the Red Mosque in the capital, Islamabad, to crush another Taliban-style movement.
More than 100 people were killed in the fighting.
Many of the Red Mosque followers hailed from Swat, Waziristan and other poor areas of North West Frontier Province.
REUTERS SKB RN1717