/ 24 January 2008

Pakistani forces battle militants, dozens killed

Pakistani forces have cleared militant strongholds from three areas in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border and 40 militants and eight soldiers have been killed in fighting, the military said on Thursday.

The army is sending reinforcements and using tanks in the area after a week of fighting with militants loyal to a Taliban commander the government said was behind the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month.

Security forces had carried out operations in three parts of South Waziristan, the military said on Thursday.

”These areas have been cleared of militant strongholds and hideouts,” the military said in a statement.

”Forty miscreants have been killed in the last 24 hours and 30 miscreants have been apprehended, while many [have been] injured,” the military said.

Eight soldiers had been killed and 32 wounded, it said.

The fighting is in strongholds of militant commander Baitullah Mehsud, who the United States has also said was behind Bhutto’s assassination in a gun and bomb attack in Rawalpindi on December 27.

Mehsud has been blamed for a string of attacks in a suicide-bomb campaign that intensified after commandos stormed a radical mosque complex in Islamabad last July.

On Wednesday last week, his men attacked and captured another fort in Waziristan.

As the fighting intensified this week, a top US military commander visited Pakistan for talks with its army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani.

Admiral William Fallon, the head of the US military’s Central Command, discussed the security situation with Kayani at his headquarters in Rawalpindi on Tuesday. Officials declined to elaborate.

Fallon told reporters in Florida last week that Pakistan was increasingly willing to fight Islamist militants and accept US help, without saying what kind of support.

But he added that he believed Pakistani leaders wanted a ”more robust” effort by US forces to train and advise their forces in counterinsurgency efforts.

The United States has already announced plans to step up training of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force recruited from tribal lands. — Reuters