DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (Reuters) -Fresh clashes erupted in a Pakistani tribal region on Wednesday after a tribal force launched an offensive to expel foreign al Qaeda-linked militants from their lands, officials said.
Up to 60 foreign militants, most of them Uzbeks, were believed to have been killed and about 40 had surrendered to the tribal force, Hussainzada Khan, the top administrator of the South Waziristan region and a security official, said.
“We are receiving reports that 50 to 60 Uzbeks have been killed. We are checking these reports,” Khan told Reuters.
An intelligence official in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, said about 40 Uzbeks had been killed in the fighting in which the tribesmen attacked and captured a militant stronghold in a village near Wana.
Thousands of foreign militants fled to the semi-autonomous tribal lands on the Pakistani side of the border after U.S.-led forces defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.
The militants were given refuge by most of the Pashtun tribes that straddle the border.
But relations between the foreigners and at least some of the tribesmen broke down last month when fighting erupted after the militants tried to kill a pro-government tribal leader.
The Pakistani military says it has not been involved in the fighting.
Tribesmen beating traditional war drums for the first time in three years raised an army, known as a lashkar, of 1,500 fighters in Wana on Tuesday. They vowed to expel foreign militants and punish any Pakistanis harboring them.
Government officials say more than 200 people have been killed, most of them Uzbek militants, since early last month although residents of the rugged land of rocky mountains and forests say the toll is lower.
After joining the U.S.-led war on terrorism launched in 2001, Pakistani forces tried to clear the semi-autonomous tribal areas of foreigners.
But after a series of bloody, inconclusive clashes, authorities struck pacts with tribesmen in different areas on the border in the hope of driving a wedge between them and the foreign militants.
Many of the tribesmen support the Taliban in Afghanistan and critics say the pacts have not stopped attacks on foreign troops in Afghanistan, and have led to the expansion of Islamist influence, or Talibanization as it is known, in Pakistan.
The military says the fighting over the past month shows the government’s policy is working.