March 6, 2006

Pakistan helicopters hit militants on Afghan border

By Zeeshan Haider

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani army helicopters were in
action against Islamists rebels on Monday, blasting positions
around a town near the Afghan border for a third day, a
resident said.

Scores of people have been killed in the fighting that
erupted on Saturday as U.S. President George W. Bush was
meeting the Pakistani leader in the capital, Islamabad, to spur
his efforts in the war on terrorism.

"Helicopter gunships have been pounding militant positions
around Miranshah," a resident of the main town in the North
Waziristan tribal region said. "The situation is very tense."

The semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun lands along the Afghan
border are Pakistan's front line in the war on terror.

Many al Qaeda militants fled to the area awash with weapons
after U.S. and Afghan opposition forces ousted the Taliban in
late 2001, and were given refuge by Taliban supporters among
the Pashtun clans.

Pakistani forces have been trying to clear foreign
militants from the border and subdue their Pakistani allies
since late 2004 and hundreds of people have been killed.

The Pakistani military said about 50 militants and five
government troops have been killed since Saturday when the
militants launched attacks and seized government buildings in
Miranshah in revenge for the killing on Wednesday of 45 of
their comrades in a government attack.

Thousands of residents have left the town since last week's
violence and the exodus was continuing on Monday, the resident

Government forces wrested back control of most of Miranshah
on Sunday but the militants had not given up, he said.

"There were exchanges of fire throughout the night," said
the resident who, like many people in the town, is fearful of
militant reprisals and declined to be identified.

"The firing went on intermittently with both sides using
rocket-propelled grenades and missiles," he said.


The town's telephone service had been partially restored
after the army took back the main exchange, which the militants
seized on Saturday, and troops were in control of the main
market area, he said.

Waziristan has a long history of military intervention.

Britain won over some Pashtun tribes and made the region
its first line of defense from perceived Russian designs on
British India in the nineteenth century.

In the 1980s, a flood of U.S.-funded weapons and Islamist
fighters poured into the area to bolster the Muslim holy war
against Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan.

Today, Afghanistan complains of Taliban and other militants
infiltrating from Waziristan and other Pakistani border areas
to launch attacks against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul
and US.-led foreign troops there.

Pakistan said on Sunday for the first time militant
violence in Waziristan was directly related to the Taliban

"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," military
spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan told a news conference.

"We cannot disassociate this area from what is happening in
Afghanistan," he said, adding that Pakistan's border areas
would only be brought under control when the Afghan side was