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60 killed in Afghan fighting

Reuters | July 18, 2005

US, Afghan and Pakistani forces have killed more than 60 suspected foreign militants and Taliban insurgents during the past three days in a series of clashes in restive tribal lands in the North-West Frontier region, military officials said today.

The fighting follows a warning by a senior US official last week that forces on both sides of the border needed to squeeze the frontier region where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden might be hiding.

Also last week, a Pakistani general warned tribesmen in the North Waziristan region of an imminent offensive unless they surrendered foreign militants living in their midst.

Early today, Pakistani troops killed 17 militants, some believed to be from central Asia, along with women and children, after coming under fire when they surrounded two houses near Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal agency on the border with Afghanistan, the military said.

The Pakistan army offensive in North Waziristan coincides with President Pervez Musharraf's order for a countrywide crackdown on Islamist militants in the wake of revelations of Pakistani connections to the bomb blasts in London on July 7.

Tension has been building for months in North Waziristan since the army completed a string of offensives against al Qaeda militants in neighbouring South Waziristan.

Military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan said the militants opened fire after refusing an appeal from tribal elders to surrender, and soldiers returned fire.

A military statement said militants used women as shields as they tried to flee, and some women joined in the fighting.

"The militants and women fired back and lobbed grenades that resulted in shahadat (martyrdom) of one soldier," the statement said.

Residents of Miranshah, 300 km south-west of Islamabad, said troops had cordoned off the area.

Last Thursday, 24 militants were killed in North Waziristan after killing a soldier in a rocket attack on an Afghan army post before fleeing back over the border to Pakistan but not beyond the range of US artillery and helicopters.

The same night, US-led and Afghan forces killed another 20 fighters - either Taliban guerrillas or their Islamist allies - during a clash in Afghanistan's south-east province of Khost.

Afghan defence spokesman General Zahir Azimi said today the militants had earlier attacked an Afghan National Army base in Espera district.

In Paktika province, which adjoins both Khost and North Waziristan, four US soldiers received minor wounds when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb yesterday.

Insurgents have intensified attacks ahead of Afghanistan's parliamentary polls planned for September 18.

"Terrorist organisations want to focus world attention upon themselves and to weaken the strength of the state," Lieutenant General Ethem Erdagi, the Turkish Commander of NATO-led peacekeepers in Afghanistan said.

The Taliban today issued a fresh warning to Afghans against taking part in the polls.

"We have already warned people against contesting the elections and after this if anyone registers as a candidate we will start killing them," Abdul Latif Hakimi, a Taliban spokesman, said by satellite telephone.

Washington has been hunting bin Laden, the architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, for almost four years. After the attacks, the US military invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban, who had given him safe haven.

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