MIRAN SHAH, Pakistan (AP) – Shelling resumed early Wednesday in an area of northwest Pakistan where battles between troops and militants have killed up to 250 people and sent thousands more fleeing, witnesses said.
The five days of clashes in the North Waziristan region near the Afghan border are the deadliest since Pakistan threw its support behind the U.S.-led war on terror in 2001.
An Associated Press reporter in Miran Shah, the region’s main town, heard a burst of artillery or mortar fire before dawn on Wednesday. Farid Ullah, a resident of nearby Mir Ali, said the shells had hit houses in that town.
“I have not dared to go outside, so I don’t know if there anyone was hurt,” Ullah said by telephone.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said that while artillery may have been fired, no major incidents took place overnight.
On Tuesday, residents said Pakistani aircraft bombed the nearby village of Epi, killing dozens of militants and civilians and injuring many more, including shoppers in a packed bazaar.
The army said the planes were targeting militant hideouts near Mir Ali and that local tribesmen reported about 50 militants were killed.
Arshad said Tuesday that the airstrikes might have killed some civilians, but he had no exact numbers.
The army has reported the deaths of up to 200 militants and 47 troops.
Ullah said some 10,000 people from Mir Ali and surrounding villages had abandoned their homes and, with the army blocking the roads, walked through the mountains to safer towns.
He said 60 of his relatives were among them, but that he was staying behind along with his aging mother.
The violence comes as Musharraf tries to secure another term as president, vowing to shore up Pakistan’s effort against Islamic extremism, particularly in its border regions where Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri are suspected to hide.
A bomb destroyed ten shops selling music discs — frowned on by fundamentalists — in the town of Kohat before dawn on Wednesday, police said. No one was hurt. A similar attack in the city of Peshawar on Tuesday wounded a dozen people.
Pakistan struck a controversial cease-fire deal with militants in North Waziristan last year. U.S. officials criticized the pact, claiming it provided a safe haven for al-Qaida and 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. Security forces have since suffered more than 250 casualties, many of them in suicide bombings, and more than 230 soldiers have been kidnapped.
The escalating clashes have sparked debate in Pakistan on whether military action — widely perceived as done at the bidding of the United States despite Musharraf’s insistence it is in the national interest — can curb Islamic extremism or only serves to enflame it.