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Violence underscores Pakistan's struggles in battling militants

PESHAWAR, Pakistan—A sudden upsurge in fighting near the Afghan border this weekend, just as President Bush was finishing a visit to Pakistan, suggests that it may be difficult for Pakistan to meet U.S. demands to crack down on Taliban and al-Qaida militants in Pakistan.

The militants, who cross into Afghanistan to attack U.S. and Afghan forces there, and their local supporters clashed with the Pakistani military Saturday evening and early Sunday morning in the border area of North Waziristan.

More than 50 people were killed, according to the military, and Pakistani media accounts put the death toll above 100. Foreign journalists aren't permitted to enter Waziristan, and accurate information is difficult to obtain.

The stakes are high for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who also faces an insurgency by nationalists in the vast southwestern province of Baluchistan and growing unpopularity at home for allying Pakistan with the U.S.-led war on terror.

The border battle also is critical to the U.S.-backed efforts to quell a Taliban and al-Qaida insurgency in Afghanistan and to hunt down Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders who're believed to be hiding in the remote, mountainous tribal areas.

"The border is porous," Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said at a news conference Sunday at army headquarters outside Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. "Militants keep on coming and going. That's our main problem."

But the fighting could escalate as the mountain snows melt, and if Pakistan cracks down too hard, the government risks killing innocent villagers and further alienating the local populace and the country's Muslim population.

The weekend's violence appeared to be a direct result of the military's attempt to step up its effort against Taliban and al-Qaida militants seeking shelter in Pakistan. The following account was pieced together from official military accounts and conversations with local journalists in Peshawar, the closest major city to Waziristan.

On March 1, the military attacked a group of militants and their local supporters at a village about a mile and a half from the Afghan border. The dead included 10 Afghans and four militants from other countries.

After reports that women and children were killed in the attack, an Islamic leader in the North Waziristan town of Miran Shah called for a jihad, or holy war, against the Pakistani military.

On Saturday afternoon, Taliban forces occupied several buildings around the central bazaar in Miran Shah, about a dozen miles from the Afghan border. The military ordered the Taliban to leave by 5 p.m. When the Taliban refused, the military started shelling the bazaar from a base less than a mile away.

The Taliban retreated, then regrouped and started firing at the military base from the surrounding hills. The military struck back with attack helicopters, strafing the hills. Soldiers reportedly also attacked militants close to the nearby town of Mir Ali.

Forty-six militants and five Pakistani soldiers were killed, Sultan, the Army spokesman, said. Several buildings in Miran Shah were damaged. There was no estimate of civilian casualties, but many civilians started leaving on Sunday, fearing further violence.

Kamal Wazir, a 22-year-old student, was buying vegetables in the bazaar late Saturday afternoon when the shelling began. He ran to his nearby home, where 16 members of his family waited out the fighting overnight.

On Sunday, they walked about 12 miles to a military checkpoint, where vehicles heading toward Miran Shah were being stopped. There, they were able to hail a ride to the town of Bannu, about 40 miles from their hometown.

"We were afraid for our family," he said in a telephone interview after reaching Bannu. "We were afraid for the women and babies."

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(Moritsugu is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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