- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2011

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Fighting between militants who crossed into Pakistan from Afghanistan and attacked a Pakistani checkpoint killed 25 troops, three civilians and 35 insurgents, police said Thursday, in some of the deadliest clashes in recent months.

The fighting, which began Wednesday and continued into Thursday, came as a top Pakistani general said the military plans to stage an operation against militants in a tribal region that juts deep inside Afghanistan, but he denied media reports of an upcoming offensive in North Waziristan, the tribal area where the United States has been pushing for action.

Pakistan‘s northwest border with Afghanistan for years has been a stomping ground for Islamist extremists, some of whom focus on attacks against Western forces across the border, some who attack the Pakistani state, and others who plot terrorism against the West.

Pakistan has taken action against militants in the northwest, but they have proved to be resilient.

The clashes erupted Wednesday in Shaltalo town in Upper Dir district. Upper Dir lies just outside the tribal belt, but it, too, has witnessed al Qaeda and Taliban militant activity and been the focus of military offensives.

Police said some 200 militants crossed into Pakistan from Afghanistan and went after a checkpoint manned by police and paramilitary troops.

Regional police Chief Ghulam Mohammed said 25 security troops and three civilians died, while 35 militants were killed. He said many of the attackers fled back to Afghanistan as the fighting wound down on Thursday.

Chief Mohammed said the situation was now under control and funerals were being arranged.

On Wednesday, army Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, who oversees military operations in the tribal areas and other parts of the northwest, said the Kurram tribal area would be the next target of an offensive after local leaders there requested it.

Gen. Malik said operations would be launched there with the government’s backing, but he declined to give any more operational details.

Kurram has seen sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims for years, but it is also home to militants with other aims. According to some accounts, the Haqqani network, a faction of the Afghan Taliban, was shifting fighters there from North Waziristan tribal region.

The Haqqani network is considered one of the biggest threats to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, partly because its fighters can retreat across the border to North Waziristan, where they have bases and have been left alone by the Pakistani army.

The United States has pushed the Pakistani military go after the Haqqanis and other factions in North Waziristan. The pressure has increased since the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a garrison city in Pakistan‘s northwest and deeply embarrassed the army.

But officials here have resisted, saying that their troops are stretched on other fronts and that their priority is to eliminate insurgents who attack Pakistan, which the Haqqanis have not done.

Gen. Malik said Wednesday that that position has not changed, and he dismissed recent “media hype” about an imminent offensive in North Waziristan.

“There is no change in North Waziristan in past months and weeks,” Gen. Malik said. “We will undertake an operation when we want to, when it’s in the national interest.”

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