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Pakistan counts dead in fighting al Qaeda, Taliban

Written by: Staff
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MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, Apr 29 (Reuters) The Pakistani military today said it had killed 324 pro-Taliban militants and al Qaeda in North Waziristan, while losing 56 soldiers in the tribal region since the middle of last year.

The army also managed to capture 142 militants, Major General Akram Sahi, the army's commander in North Waziristan told journalists on a trip organised by the military to Pakistan's frontline in its war on terrorism.

Nearly half of those killed died in fighting since early March.

Hardly a day has passed since then without an account of some kind of violence, involving ambushes, roadside bombs, helicopter gunship attacks or missile strikes.

But the military was keen to show that, despite stories to the contrary, the tribal region was not completely out of control and security forces were gaining the upper hand.

''The situation is not absolutely peaceful ... But, to say that there is no writ of the government, it is absolutely wrong,'' said Major-General Shaukat Sultan, who is spokesman for both the military and President Pervez Musharraf.

Intelligence officials reckoned there were up to 1,000 fighters in North Waziristan, and they have support from the deeply religious and conservative tribes of the region.

On April 13, a Pakistani helicopter strike killed an Egyptian al Qaeda member wanted for involvement in the 1998 bomb attacks on US embassies in East Africa.

Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah's death was confirmed by intelligence sources even though his corpse was never found after a precision attack just six km south of Miranshah, the main military headquarters in North Waziristan.

''We don't have his body, but we have good reason to believe that he was among six or seven militants killed,'' Sultan said.

Sahi said he is sure that his men have managed to seal North Waziristan's border with Afghanistan, to stop the militants harrying US and Afghan troops on the other side.

Pakistan's 2,450-km frontier with Afghanistan runs through North Waziristan for just 175 km (109 miles), and while the army has put around 80,000 men into the border areas, close to half are in North Waziristan alone.

Haji Omar, a Taliban leader in neighbouring South Waziristan, where the army finished an offensive early last year, told Reuters this week he was actively recruiting fighters and sending them to fight US and British troops in Afghanistan.

But the government's patience with the tribes appears to be wearing thin.

Musharraf told a tribal council, or jirga, in the North West Frontier Province, capital of Peshawar, last week he was embarrassed because even good friends like China were complaining that Pakistan was being used by Islamist militants causing trouble in Central Asia.

The government's chief administrator for North Waziristan, Syed Zaheer-ul-Islam, told reporters in Miranshah that a jirga will be called there too.

The tribes will be told to forcefully evict foreigners from the area or make them surrender their arms, he said.

REUTERS PG HS1812

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