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Pak helicopters hit militants on Afghan border

Written by: Staff

Islamabad, Mar 06: Pakistani army helicopters were in action against Islamists rebels today (Mar 06, 2006), blasting positions around a town near the Afghan border for a third day, a resident said.

Scores of people have been killed in the fighting that erupted on Saturday as US President George W Bush was meeting the Pakistani leader in the capital, Islamabad, to spur his efforts in the war on terrorism.

''Helicopter gunships have been pounding militant positions around Miranshah,'' a resident of the main town in the North Waziristan tribal region said. ''The situation is very tense.'' The semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun lands along the Afghan border are Pakistan's front line in the war on terror.

Many al Qaeda militants fled to the area awash with weapons after US and Afghan opposition forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, and were given refuge by Taliban supporters among the Pashtun clans.

Pakistani forces have been trying to clear foreign militants from the border and subdue their Pakistani allies since late 2004 and hundreds of people have been killed.

The Pakistani military said about 50 militants and five government troops have been killed since Saturday when the militants launched attacks and seized government buildings in Miranshah in revenge for the killing on Wednesday of 45 of their comrades in a government attack.

Thousands of residents have left the town since last week's violence and the exodus was continuing today, the resident said.

Government forces wrested back control of most of Miranshah yesterday but the militants had not given up, he said. ''There were exchanges of fire throughout the night,'' said the resident who, like many people in the town, is fearful of militant reprisals and declined to be identified.

''The firing went on intermittently with both sides using rocket-propelled grenades and missiles,'' he said.

Violent History

The town's telephone service had been partially restored after the army took back the main exchange, which the militants seized on Saturday, and troops were in control of the main market area, he said.

Waziristan has a long history of military intervention.

Britain won over some Pashtun tribes and made the region its first line of defence from perceived Russian designs on British India in the nineteenth century.

In the 1980s, a flood of US-funded weapons and Islamist fighters poured into the area to bolster the Muslim holy war against Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan.

Afghanistan today complains of Taliban and other militants infiltrating from Waziristan and other Pakistani border areas to launch attacks against the US-backed government in Kabul and US.-led foreign troops there.

Pakistan said yesterday for the first time militant violence in Waziristan was directly related to the Taliban 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,'' military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan told a news conference.

''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.


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