- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

MIRAN SHAH, Pakistan — Pakistani soldiers and helicopter gunships attacked a suspected al Qaeda camp yesterday near the Afghan border, killing more than 45 militants and angering residents who called for a holy war days before a visit by President Bush.

As news of the attack spread in the rugged northwestern region, tribesmen who sympathize with the militants came out of their homes and began firing into the air. A mosque loudspeaker urged people to “wage jihad against the army.”

The offensive was in North Waziristan, a region controlled by fiercely independent, well-armed tribes thought to be sheltering al Qaeda fugitives and Taliban remnants. The militants often cross the porous Afghan-Pakistani border.

The raid took place as Mr. Bush made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where it was announced that a four-day al Qaeda-led riot that left six dead at the Kabul prison had been quelled, with more than 1,000 inmates surrendering.

Along the Afghan-Pakistani border, three helicopter gunships attacked the militants’ mountain hide-out near Saidgi, a village nine miles west of Miran Shah, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said.

The assault “knocked out a den of foreign militants” and killed more than 45 of them, an army statement said.

The slain men — most from Central Asian and Arab countries — included an al Qaeda-linked Chechen commander, identified only by his code name, Imam, who died when a helicopter fired on a vehicle in which he was fleeing, an army official said.

The official said the commander was behind attacks on Pakistani security forces along the border. He said the Chechen was killed along with three bodyguards.

Another security official said one soldier was killed and about a dozen were wounded. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

One helicopter hit a bus with gunfire during the raid, killing a female passenger and injuring a 20-year-old student, said bus driver Sabbir Khan. Mr. Khan also was injured and spoke from his hospital bed.

Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, has been under pressure from the United States and Afghanistan to be more aggressive in flushing out militants and sealing off the border.

Last year, President Pervez Musharraf suggested a security fence be built along the border, but Afghanistan rejected that idea.

Mr. Bush is scheduled to visit Pakistan on Saturday. His agenda will include discussion about the fight against al Qaeda and loyalists of Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime.

Suspicion that al Qaeda and Taliban militants may be using Pakistan as a base for launching terror strikes in Afghanistan has become a source of tension. More than two dozen suicide attacks in recent months have fueled Afghan suspicions.

Mr. Bush has said he will raise the issue of cross-border infiltrations with Gen. Musharraf.

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