MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (AFP) – The death toll from fierce clashes in Pakistan’s insurgency-hit tribal belt bordering Afghanistan has risen to 60 militants and 20 soldiers, the army said.
Fighting broke out Sunday in North Waziristan, where the United States says that Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network and its pro-Taliban allies have regrouped since 2001.
Troops backed by gunship helicopters launched an assault against militant bases and hideouts in retaliation for attacks on military convoys overnight on Friday, sparking hours of intense battles.
“Sixty militants have been killed by security forces in North Waziristan Agency since Sunday morning,” an army statement said.
“Twenty security forces persons have also embraced shahadat (martyrdom) in the ensuing clashes.”
Local residents said four civilians also died, including three women, although the military could not confirm this.
President Pervez Musharraf has been under mounting pressure to tackle militants who fled over the Afghan border after the US-led invasion to topple the Taliban regime in late 2001.
Musharraf, a key US ally at the centre of international efforts to combat Islamic extremism, won a landslide victory in Saturday’s presidential election and pledged to continue the fight against terrorism “100 percent”.
Violence has escalated in the troubled region and in major cities since security forces besieged and then raided the Al-Qaeda-linked Red Mosque in Islamabad in July.
Nearly 300 people in Pakistan have died in attacks since the crisis, most of which have been suicide bombings. A further 250 militants have been killed in clashes with security forces since the mosque standoff, the army says.
Pro-Taliban militants are also holding more than 200 Pakistani soldiers in nearby South Waziristan district since abducting them in late August.
A rights group Sunday accused the government of ignoring pleas for help from civilians living in the tribal areas who are being targeted by Islamic militants.