Troops kill 50-60 militants in NW Pakistan -Army

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MINGORA, Pakistan, Oct 29 (Reuters) Pakistani troops killed up to 60 Islamist militants during fierce fighting in the northwestern Swat valley, the army said today, while the insurgents called a ceasefire to recover their dead and wounded.

Troops firing artillery and backed by helicopter gunships battled militants led by a pro-Taliban cleric seeking to impose strict Islamic code in the area in yesterday's clashes. A suspected suicide attack that killed 21 people in the area last week triggered the fighting.

''The reports which I have from the police and Frontier Corps -- people who were doing this law enforcement action -- was about 50-60 militants died yesterday,'' Army spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said.

He said there were no reports of casualties to military or police personnel, and that Frontier Corps troops in the area were expected to continue establishing check points and positions in the area today.

However, residents said they counted the bodies of at least nine paramilitary soldiers killed in the fighting.

''We heard big bangs the whole night. We don't know how many people were killed,'' a terrified resident of Charbagh, 3 miles (5 km) west of the valley's main town of Mingora, told Reuters.

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

The militants today announced over the radio station a ceasefire had been agreed to allow funerals for those killed in the fighting, residents said. Announcements were also being made on loudspeakers in the villages of Kot, Roshanbad and Charbagh.

Thousands of residents fled their homes in the valley on Sunday fearing a showdown between the security forces and the militants, residents said.

The militants killed seven civilians and decapitated three soldiers and three policemen they had taken hostage in the nearby town of Matta on Friday.

Fazlullah, known as ''Mullah Radio'', is de facto head of a pro-Taliban group, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) or Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad's Sharia Law, which was banned by in January 2002.

Pakistani tribal areas have been hotbeds of support for al Qaeda and Taliban militants who have fled Afghanistan.

Violence has escalated across Pakistan since July, when militants in the tribal belt scrapped a peace deal and the army stormed a radical mosque in the capital, Islamabad.


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