- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani troops drove off a Taliban attack on a fort and pounded another band of militants holed up in a health center, officials said Wednesday as fighting spread to a third area of the tribal belt along the Afghan border.

As many as 49 insurgents were reported killed.

The violence came a week after the threat of impeachment forced longtime U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf to resign as president, triggering a scramble for power that resulted in the collapse of Pakistan’s governing coalition.

The party led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto until her assassination in December is now in a position to dominate the government and it is toughening its stance against Islamic extremists at a time when they are becoming increasingly bold.

The Taliban has taken responsibility for a wave of suicide bombings, including one outside the country’s biggest weapons complex last week that killed at least 67 people, almost all of them civilians.

Security forces have been waging offensives against militants for several weeks in the northern Swat Valley and in the Bajur tribal area, considered a launching site for Taliban operations into Afghanistan and a possible hideaway for Osama bin Laden.

On Wednesday, fighting spread to South Waziristan, a tribal region that has seen a stream of suspected U.S. missile attacks on al Qaeda hideouts in recent months.

The military said 75 to 100 militants assaulted the Tiarza Fort around midnight Tuesday, but troops guarding the post and a checkpoint on a nearby bridge “responded effectively and repulsed the attack.”

The military statement said 11 militants were killed and up to 20 wounded, but made no mention of any casualties among the troops.

Aminullah Wazir, a shopkeeper in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, said authorities imposed a curfew in the area Wednesday. He said shops were shuttered and the streets deserted.

The fiercest battles in Pakistan’s restive northwest have been in Swat and Bajur, where officials say hundreds of militants have been killed by military operations and some 200,000 residents have fled their homes to escape the violence.

In the deadliest incident Wednesday, troops rained gunfire and artillery shells on militants sheltering in a health center in Bajur and killed perhaps 30 while wounding many more, said military spokesman Maj. Murad Khan.

Police said an additional eight militants were killed and 10 wounded when troops fired on suspect vehicles in two areas of Bajur early Wednesday.

Later in the day, militants ambushed a government convoy near Wana. An intelligence official said two paramilitary fighters were killed and several others were missing.

In addition to a string of suicide bombings in the past week, gunmen fired at the car of a senior U.S. diplomat in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Tuesday and a bomb killed seven people at a roadside restaurant near Islamabad, the capital.

Tensions have also flared in the southern metropolis of Karachi, Pakistan’s economic and financial hub.

A dispute Tuesday between student followers of two feuding political parties - one secular, one Islamist - escalated into a gunbattle that left three people dead on Karachi’s university campus, officials said.

Pakistanis and the country’s Western backers worry the political turmoil since Mr. Musharraf’s ouster after nine years in power is distracting the government from dealing with militants and taking steps to shore up the flagging economy.

Lawmakers are to elect a new president Sept. 6. Asif Ali Zardari, Mrs. Bhutto’s widower and the current leader of her party, which has the biggest block of seats in parliament, is widely expected to win.

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