- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 5, 2006

MIRAN SHAH, Pakistan — Hundreds of people lugging bags and bundles of clothes fled a remote town after pro-Taliban tribesmen and foreign militants battled security forces in northwestern Pakistan, leaving at least 53 persons dead in the worst clashes in the lawless region in two years.

The unrest occurred amid mounting anger over military attacks against al Qaeda and Taliban remnants, who have been sheltered by heavily armed tribes that long have resisted the government’s control.

Fighting in the North Waziristan region started Saturday and died down early yesterday, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan. It occurred as President Bush made a one-day visit to the capital, Islamabad, about 190 miles northeast of North Waziristan, and declared his solidarity with Pakistan in the war on terror.

Sporadic firing broke out yesterday afternoon in the town of Miran Shah, the main hot spot of the unrest. But the fighters retreated from government buildings they had occupied on Saturday and troops controlled the town yesterday, Gen. Sultan said.

The foreign fighters were coming from Afghanistan and would be “confronted and eliminated,” Gen. Sultan said. He was unable to say how many of the fighters were foreigners — who often cross the porous border — and how many were Pakistani tribesmen.

The clashes were the worst since 2004, when scores of militants, troops and local fighters died during similar unrest in neighboring South Waziristan, and underscored Islamabad’s failure to assert control over the rugged region.

The weekend violence erupted just three days after the army attacked a suspected al Qaeda camp in the village of Saidgi near the Afghan border. Military officials said 45 persons, including foreign militants, were killed in the attack.

But the tribesmen — who sympathize with the militants — say local people died, and the operation whipped up more anti-government sentiment in the area.

There also was outrage over a U.S. missile strike on a village in Pakistan earlier this year that killed a relative of al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, and a terror suspect, as well as 13 residents. Many Pakistanis complained the Jan. 13 attack on Bajur violated the nation’s sovereignty.

Pakistan, an ally in the war on terror, has deployed about 80,000 security forces along the Afghan frontier to try to assert control but says it does not allow U.S. forces to cross the border in pursuit of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

Miran Shah’s streets and bazaars were empty yesterday. Smoke billowed from a bank building hit by an artillery shell. Another shell tore a hole in the home of a doctor who lived on the premises of a state-run hospital. Shells also pocked the side of the hospital.

Both sides were using mortars and other heavy weapons, and it wasn’t known who hit the buildings.

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