Pakistan forces clash with tribal fighters, 5 dead
Pakistani paramilitary forces attacked tribal fighters sheltering al Qaeda militants near the rugged Afghan border Tuesday and five people were killed in fierce clashes, officials said.
Heavy exchanges of gunfire erupted at dawn from an area where some of the wanted tribesmen were believed to be hiding, said residents of the town of Wana.
The clash came a day before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was due to visit Pakistan. Speaking as he flew to India Monday, Powell urged Pakistan to ramp up its military activities near the Afghan border.
"The situation is very serious, very intense, there have been casualties," one resident of the town, 225 miles southwest of Islamabad, told Reuters.
A Pakistani security official said two paramilitary men had been killed and four wounded while at least three tribal fighters were killed and several wounded.
Pakistan's remote tribal lands have been semi-autonomous for decades. Many of the area's ethnic Pashtun tribesmen support Afghanistan's ousted Taliban militia, many of whom are also Pashtun.
The Pakistani push came as U.S. forces mounted a spring offensive in southern and eastern Afghanistan, across the border from the tribal areas, aimed at crushing Taliban and al Qaeda rebels and catching their leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden is also thought to be in hiding somewhere along the frontier, and the U.S. military hopes to trap him and other key figures in a "hammer and anvil" operation with Pakistani forces.
Two ambulances were seen taking men away from the fighting near Kaloosha village, but it was not clear how many people were in them or if they were dead or wounded, a witness said.
A group of paramilitary Frontier Corps men was seen coming under rocket and machinegun fire but it was not known if there had been any casualties in that firing, he added.
A Pakistani military official said the attack in the South Waziristan tribal agency had been launched because there were "miscreants" in the area, and possibly some foreign militants.
"The information about deaths and injuries is correct but I cannot give any figure yet," military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan told the private Geo Television.
President Pervez Musharraf said Monday up to 600 foreign Muslim militants were hiding in the region and 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 Qaeda suspect for the assassination bids, saying that he hired local Pakistanis to carry them out.
Many tribal forces support the government's move to clear the area of foreign militants, but some have defied orders to hand over suspects.
Powell, who will also visit Afghanistan, said he wanted to see "greater action" by Pakistan on their side of the Afghan border as U.S. forces undertake a spring offensive in southern and eastern Afghanistan to try to catch bin Laden.
"Pakistan has undertaken a number of operations recently along the border ... and we just want to see them do more of that," Powell told reporters.
It was not known how many militants the tribesmen involved in Tuesday's clash were sheltering or how senior they were.
Musharraf said foreign militants who laid down their arms and surrendered would not be handed over to another country.