- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter jets killed 24 militants Monday, an official said, in an operation praised by U.S. commanders worried about Taliban sanctuaries near the Afghan border.

The Pakistani operation comes amid tension with the U.S. over whether the Muslim nation is doing enough to combat insurgents in its wild border region - named as a possible hide-out of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden - and whether the U.S. should pursue unilateral strikes there.

On Monday, residents and intelligence officials claimed Pakistani troops fired warning shots after suspected American helicopters landed near their positions in another militant stronghold farther south. The U.S. military in Afghanistan denied involvement.

Monday’s deaths were the latest toll from a bloody six-week military offensive that has reportedly killed hundreds in the Bajur tribal region. An estimated 32 people, including three women, died Sunday, senior government official Iqbal Khattak said.

U.S. officials say the Taliban and other militant groups use Bajur as a base from which to support the insurgency in Afghanistan.

In Bajur, Pakistani forces used helicopter gunships, fighter jets and heavy artillery to attack suspected militant positions in various areas, Mr. Khattak said. In addition to the 24 militants killed, 22 others were wounded, he said.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, who commands U.S.-led troops in eastern Afghanistan, said earlier this month that he was “really encouraged” by the Pakistani operation in Bajur and that it had reduced violence across the border.

He also praised cooperation between U.S.-led and Pakistani forces along the mountainous, ill-mapped frontier.

However, a series of suspected U.S. missile strikes and an American-led ground assault in Pakistani territory in the northwest in recent days have prompted official protests from Pakistan’s military and government.

Pakistan new president, Asif Ali Zardari, is expected to discuss the incursions with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London this week.

Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has said Pakistan will defend its sovereignty “at all cost” and that there is no agreement for the U.S. to conduct raids across the frontier.

On Monday, two Pakistani intelligence officials said several helicopters landed shortly after midnight near Angoor Ada, the same area of the South Waziristan region where the recent U.S. ground raid took place.

The officials, who asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to news media on the record, said Pakistani troops stationed nearby fired warning shots from light weapons. The helicopters departed toward Afghanistan shortly afterward, they said, citing local informants.

Army spokesman Maj. Murad Khan said there was firing in the area, but that the military didn’t know who was responsible. Capt. Scott Miller, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said the military had checked the report with its units and found that none were involved.

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