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Pakistan battles militants near Afghan border

Written by: Staff
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MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, Mar 5 (Reuters) Pakistani army helicopters pounded mountains near the Afghan border today and troops exchanged gunfire with militants, a day after more than 50 people were killed in clashes with pro-Taliban fighters.

The violence in the remote, semi-autonomous tribal region awash with weapons underscores the problems President Pervez Musharraf faces on his front in the US-led war on terrorism.

The fighting erupted yesterday in Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan region, as US President George W Bush was in the capital, Islamabad, 300 km to the northeast, for talks with Musharraf that focused on security.

''Firing continued intermittently during the night and in the early morning,'' military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan told a news conference at his headquarters near Islamabad.

''There are reports of sporadic firing in the afternoon.'' Sultan said 46 militants and five government troops were killed yesterday when the militants launched a series of attacks and seized several government buildings in Miranshah in revenge for the killing last Wednesday of 45 of their comrades.

Helicopter gunships fired rockets into mountains to the east of Miranshah today morning, sending plumes of smoke and dust into the sky, but there were no reports of casualties, a resident said.

Virtually all of the town's shops were boarded up and streets and markets deserted. A bank attacked and set on fire in Saturday's fighting was a smouldering ruin, he said.

Ethnic Pashtuns inhabit Waziristan as well as Afghan areas on the other side of the border and many people support the Taliban, most of whose leaders and rank-and-file are Pashtun.

Many al Qaeda members fled to Waziristan after US and Afghan opposition forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, and they were given refuge by conservative Pakistani Pashtun clans.

The Pakistani government has been trying to clear foreign militants from the border and subdue their Pakistani allies, and hundreds of people have been killed in clashes since late 2004.

''MILITANTS COMING, GOING'' Sultan said the violence was directly linked to Afghanistan's insurgency.

''The border is porous. Militants do keep on coming and going ... so it's quite likely that more militants might have come from Afghanistan. So that's our main problem,'' he said.

''We cannot disassociate this area from what is happening in Afghanistan,'' he said, adding that Pakistan's border areas would only be brought under control when the Afghan side was stable.

Taliban and allied militants have been battling Afghanistan's US-backed government and foreign forces there since the Taliban were ousted.

Afghanistan has often complained of Taliban and other militants infiltrating from Waziristan and other Pakistani border areas to launch attacks.

The Pakistani army said the al Qaeda-linked militants killed last Wednesday included Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Afghans.

Sultan said he did not know the identity of those killed yesterday.

Most of the Pakistani militants in the area are young Pashtun men, many of them loyal to a powerful Islamist cleric, Maulana Abdul Khaliq Haqqani.

An intelligence official said yesterday government forces had attacked Haqqani's headquarters but his fate was not known.

The top government official in North Waziristan, Zaheer-ul-Islam, said authorities would not tolerate militant opposition.

''We have forcefully responded to their attack and any place which the militants used as a base to launch attacks will be wiped out,'' he told Reuters earlier today.

REUTERS SY KP1914

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