Troops kill more militants in Pakistan

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MINGORA, Pakistan, Oct 31 (Reuters) Pakistani security forces, backed by helicopter gunships, attacked Islamist militants in a restive northwestern region after a brief truce, killing up to 18 of them, an official said today.

Scores of people have been killed in violence in the scenic Swat valley in the North West Frontier Province in the past week.

The fighting subsided on Monday after militants called a truce to bury the dead but they fired at army helicopter gunships and attacked a police station yesterday night, prompting retaliation from the security forces.

''The forces used artillery and helicopter gunships against the militants. According to my information, 15 to 18 militants were killed in the attack,'' Badshah Gul Wazir, the top official at the provincial home ministry, told Reuters.

He said there were no casualties among the security forces.

Swat, which lies close to Pakistan's lawless tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, has seen a surge in militant activity since pro-Taliban cleric Mullah Fazlullah launched an illegal FM radio station and urged a holy war.

The fighting was triggered on Thursday when a suicide bombing targeting an army convoy killed 21 people. Militants then executed 13 people the following day, including six members of the security forces whom they beheaded.

More than 100 people, most of them militants, were killed in fighting that followed.

Thousands of people have already fled the valley and there are growing fears of more fighting as militants have asked residents in a local rebel stronghold to leave their homes.

The government last week sent more than 2000 troops to quell the uprising.

Meanwhile, four civilians were killed in the North Waziristan tribal region during an exchange of fire between the security forces and militants late yesterday, witnesses said.

''A mortar bomb hit a hotel in Miranshah and killed four people,'' local resident Mohammad Khan said, referring to North Waziristan's main town. Both North and South Waziristan are hotbeds of support for Taliban and al Qaeda militants who fled Afghanistan in late 2001.

Violence has escalated across Pakistan since July, when militants scrapped a peace deal and the army stormed a radical mosque in the capital, Islamabad, to flush out pro-Taliban militants.

A suicide attack killed at least seven people, including the bomber, yesterday, less than a kilometre from President Pervez Musharraf's army residence in the garrison town of Rawalpindi near Islamabad.

That came a fortnight after a suicide attack killed 139 people at a rally to mark the return of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto after eight years of self-imposed exile.

REUTERS AM BD2343

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