Wana (Pakistan), March 16 (Reuters): Pakistani forces met stiff resistance in an attack on tribal fighters sheltering Muslim militants near the Afghan border today and eight troops and 24 fighters were killed, the government said.
Heavy exchanges of gunfire erupted at dawn when hundreds of paramilitary troops launched the attack.
The tribesmen, helped by their militant allies, fought back and launched attacks on the government troops, an official and a witness said.
“The situation is very bad, really. The government suffered many losses. There were several attacks at different places,” said a resident of the town of Wana, near the scene of the fighting, 360 km southwest of Islamabad.
The fighting in the South Waziristan tribal agency died down as night fell, an official in the area said.
The fighting came a day before US secretary of state Colin Powell was due to visit Pakistan. Speaking as he flew to India yesterday, Powell urged Pakistan to step up its military activities near the Afghan border.
The Pakistani push coincided with an offensive by US forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan, across the border from the tribal areas, aimed at crushing Taliban and al Qaida rebels and catching their leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden is also thought to be in hiding somewhere along the frontier, and the US military hopes to trap him and others in a “hammer and anvil” operation with Pakistani forces.
Pakistan’s tribal lands have a long tradition of autonomy. Many of the area’s fiercely independent and conservative Pashtun tribesmen support Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban militia, many of whom are also Pashtun. Military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan said eight government men were killed and 15 wounded. He said 24 militants, including some foreign fighters, were killed.
Ambulances had taken men away from the fighting near Kaloosha village, a witness said.
A security official said at least one of the dead militants was believed to be a Chechen. He was found with a grenade in his hand and landmines strapped to his body. The offensive had been launched because there were “miscreants” in the area, Sultan said.
President Pervez Musharraf said on the eve of the assault up to 600 foreign Muslim militants were hiding in the region and he called on tribal leaders to hand them over. Musharraf, speaking to the elders in Peshawar near the Afghan border, said some of the militants responsible for attacks in Pakistan, including attempts on his life in December, were hiding in tribal lands.
He blamed a Libyan al Qaida suspect for the assassination bids, saying he hired a Pakistani to recruit people who went on to carry out the attacks. The mastermind of the attacks was in the tribal area, he said, although it was not clear if he was referring to the Libyan.
Many tribal forces support the government's move to clear the area of foreign fighters but some have defied orders to hand them over.
Powell, who will also visit Afghanistan, said he wanted to see “greater action” by Pakistan on their side of the border as US forces make their push on the Afghan side.
“Pakistan has undertaken a number of operations recently along the border... and we just want to see them do more of that,” Powell said.