WANA, Pakistan (AFP) -Tribesmen loyal to the Pakistani government fought fierce battles with foreign Al-Qaeda militants for a third day Wednesday, leaving more than 100 people dead, officials said.
Pakistani troops also shelled the Uzbek militants sheltering in the mountainous tribal area of South Waziristan, security officials and residents said, although a military spokesman denied the army was involved.
The fighting started Monday after ex-Taliban commander Mullah Nazir, who backs President Pervez Musharraf’s moves to expel foreign fighters from the area, ordered followers of Uzbek militant Tahir Yuldashev to disarm.
Officials said Yuldashev, who leads a group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was formerly a close confidant of Osama bin Laden. He has been sentenced to death in absentia for bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
“At least 78 Uzbeks and their local supporters and 28 supporters of Mullah Nazir have died, including four children killed by a shell,” a security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
More than half of the fatalities have occurred since Tuesday night, when Nazir gave the Uzbeks a deadline to leave Kalusha, the town where the violence has been centered.
Residents and a senior security official said troops launched shells at foreign militants early Wednesday after the insurgents fired on their camp in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan.
But Pakistani military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said that “government forces are not involved in the tribal feud.”
Meanwhile, local Taliban militants allied with the tribesmen attacked and seized control of a private jail being run by Uzbek militants in Azam Warsak, near Kalusha, the officials said.
The local militants freed three local tribesmen and one Afghan who were chained up, they said. An amount of explosives stored at the jail also exploded, causing an unknown number of casualties.
A tribal council, or jirga, led by a mullah from a leading pro-Taliban Islamic party had left for Wana in a bid to negotiate a truce, officials said.
The fighting ended a ceasefire negotiated about two weeks ago after 19 people died in fierce gunbattles between Yuldashev’s supporters and tribesmen in Azam Warsak.
Yuldashev and his men were among thousands of militants who fled the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 and sought shelter with ethnic Pashtun tribesmen in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt along the border.
Yuldashev was wounded during major battles with Pakistani forces in Azam Warsak in March 2004. At one point officials thought Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri was involved, but this was later denied.