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Pak guns boom after Bush leaves
- Crackdown on rebels, toll touches 50

Miranshah, March 5 (Reuters): Pakistani army helicopters pounded mountains near the Afghan border today and troops exchanged gunfire with militants, a day after more than 50 people were killed in clashes with pro-Taliban fighters.

The violence in the remote, semi-autonomous tribal region awash with weapons underscores the problems President Pervez Musharraf faces on his front in the US-led war on terrorism.

The fighting erupted yesterday in Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan region, as US President George W. Bush was in Islamabad, 300 km to the northeast, for talks with Musharraf that focused on security.

“Firing continued intermittently during the night and in the early morning,” military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan told a news conference near Islamabad.

“There are reports of sporadic firing in the afternoon.”

Sultan said 46 militants and five government troops were killed yesterday when the militants launched a series of attacks and seized several government buildings in Miranshah in revenge for the killing of 45 of their comrades last Wednesday.

Helicopter gunships fired rockets into mountains to the east of Miranshah this morning, sending plumes of smoke and dust into the sky, but there were no reports of casualties.

Virtually all of the town’s shops were boarded up and streets and markets deserted. A bank attacked and set on fire in yesterday’s fighting was a smouldering ruin.

Ethnic Pashtuns inhabit Waziristan and Afghan areas across the border and many people support the Taliban, most of whose leaders and rank-and-file are Pashtun.

Many al Qaida members fled to Waziristan after US and Afghan opposition forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, and they were given refuge by conservative Pakistani Pashtun clans. The Pakistani government has been trying to clear foreign militants from the border and subdue their Pakistani allies, and hundreds of people have been killed in clashes since late 2004.

Sultan said the violence was directly linked to Afghanistan’s insurgency.

“The border is porous. Militants do keep on coming and going... so it’s quite likely that more militants might have come from Afghanistan. So that’s our main problem,” he said. “We cannot dissociate this area from what is happening in Afghanistan.” Pakistan’s border areas would only be brought under control when the Afghan side was stable.

Taliban and allied militants have been battling Afghanistan’s US-backed government and foreign forces there since the Taliban were ousted.

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