Death toll mounts as Pakistan troops battle militants

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MINGORA, Pakistan, Nov 21 (Reuters) More than 40 people have been killed in two days of fighting in a northwest Pakistani valley as troops seek to wipe out militants trying to enforce Taliban-style rule, the military and witnesses said today.

Major Amjad Iqbal, an army spokesman, said 17 militants were killed in Swat valley's Shangla district in gunbattles overnight, taking the death toll since yesterday to 40.

Four civilians from the same family were killed by a mortar bomb today elsewhere in the valley, a relative said.

Troops are using helicopter gunships and artillery to evict rebels led by hardline cleric Maulana Fazlullah from the scenic valley in North West Frontier Province, where weeks of fighting have killed about 300 people.

''We are advancing towards Alpuri, where militants are in control,'' Iqbal said, referring to a town in Shangla district, adding militants had fired several rockets into an army camp in the adjacent Swat district, wounding two soldiers.

He had no information about any civilian casualties.

Thousands of people have fled the area since the army stepped up operations last week after police failed to prevent a militant build-up.

Daulat Mand, a resident in a village in the militant stronghold of Kabal, where a rebel attack on an army camp triggered fighting that continued until dawn, said four of his relatives were killed by a mortar bomb.

''The bomb killed my aunt and three cousins and wounded my uncle and two others,'' he said.

Four civilians were killed in Shangla by a similar mortar bomb attack yesterday. Military officials say insurgents are using civilian premises to launch attacks on security forces.

Fighting erupted between troops and militants in October after Fazlullah used an illegal FM radio station to call for jihad, or holy war, after an assault on a militant mosque in the capital Islamabad in July.

Militants have infiltrated from strongholds on the Afghan border to support Fazlullah in recent weeks, while the country's focus has been on President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule and suspension of the constitution in an apparent bid to hold onto power.


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