MIRAN SHAH, Pakistan, (AP) – Fierce fighting between Islamic militants and security forces near the Afghan border has killed as many as 250 people over four days. The battles marked some of the deadliest clashes on Pakistani soil since it threw its support behind the U.S.-led war on terrorism in 2001, the army said Tuesday.
Airstrikes hit a village bazaar in North Waziristan tribal region on Tuesday afternoon, killing more than 50 militants and civilians and wounding scores more, said resident Noor Hassan. “The bombing destroyed many shops and homes,” Hassan said by telephone from the village of Epi. “We are leaving.”
Twelve huge explosions rocked the village and bombs also hit the nearby village of Hader Khel, Hassan said.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said military aircraft struck “one or two places” near the town of Mir Ali and there were unconfirmed reports that about 50 militants were killed. Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb killed two soldiers, the army said.
Epi lies about 2 1/2 miles from Mir Ali.
The fighting began Saturday after a roadside bomb hit a truckload of paramilitary troops, sparking bitter clashes. The bodies of dozens of soldiers, many with their throats slit, have been recovered from deserted areas of the region, fleeing residents said.
The violence comes as Gen. Pervez Musharraf tries to secure another term as president, vowing to shore up Pakistan’s troubled effort against Islamic extremism.
The army appeared to be resorting to heavy firepower. Pakistani troops have suffered mounting losses as they try to reassert state authority in a swath of mountainous territory where warlords supportive of the Taliban and al-Qaida have seized control.
Before Tuesday’s airstrikes, the army had reported that battles have killed 150 fighters and 45 soldiers since Saturday. About 12-15 troops are missing. Another 50 militants and 20 soldiers had been wounded.
Security forces have rejected a cease-fire proposed by the militants and will “continue punitive action till complete peace is restored” in the area, an army statement said.
Pakistan struck a cease-fire deal with militants in North Waziristan last year. U.S. officials criticized the pact, claiming it gave a safe haven for al-Qaida and provided a rear base for Taliban guerrillas fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan.
In July, Pakistan’s army redeployed troops at key checkpoints in the region, sparking fresh hostilities.
After Saturday’s bombing, about 300 militants ambushed an army convoy traveling to the scene, killing 22 troops and wounding 11. Others were captured alive and could be still held by militants, an intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
One resident of Isu Khel village said three soldiers came to his home asking for protection but he refused, fearing militants might target him. The three soldiers later escaped in a military truck, said the villager, speaking after fleeing to the region’s main town, Miran Shah.
Other residents of Isu Khel and nearby Melagan village said they spotted soldiers’ bodies abandoned in deserted areas and a roadside, many with their throats slit.
A woman, who fled to Miran Shah, said the bodies of eight soldiers shot dead were covered in dust and one was badly mutilated.
The villagers who spoke to The Associated Press requested their names not be printed, fearing reprisals.
Security forces have suffered more than 250 casualties in the past three months, many of them in suicide bombings. The government is also trying to secure the release of more than 200 soldiers seized in the South Waziristan region at the end of August.