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Firefight in Pakistan Claims 32 Lives

Troops hunting for militants clash with tribesmen in a region bordering Afghanistan.

March 17, 2004|Zulfiqar Ali | Special to The Times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — At least eight members of Pakistan's security forces were killed and 24 were wounded Tuesday in a fierce gun battle with tribesmen in a troubled region bordering Afghanistan, officials and eyewitnesses said.

At least 24 suspects were reported killed in the firefight that raged for several hours in Kalosha district, about five miles west of Wana, the administrative center of South Waziristan.

The casualty toll may increase, local journalist Silab Mahsood said by telephone.

The battle occurred amid a new offensive by American forces in Afghanistan aimed at capturing Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

Pakistan's support for the operation is feeding domestic opposition to President Pervez Musharraf, who said Monday that about 500 to 600 foreign suspects from the Al Qaeda terrorist network and other militant groups are operating in the semiautonomous South Waziristan tribal region.

Last month, Pakistani government forces killed at least 11 civilians, including six Afghans, when they opened fire on a pickup truck in the region.

Musharraf told a tribal jirga, or traditional council, in Peshawar on Monday that military operations in the border area must produce results. "The repercussions will be very serious for the country if the operation fails in Wana," he said.

Musharraf insisted that no U.S. military forces were involved in South Waziristan and said he would resign rather than "compromise on a vital national interest" such as Pakistan's sovereignty.

But Musharraf confirmed that some Americans were in the area to gather intelligence on foreign militants. The president did not say what agency the Americans were from, but local residents have said the Federal Bureau of Investigation has agents based in Wana.

"It is true that over two dozen Americans are operating in the area [and] are sharing intelligence with the administration," Musharraf told the tribal council.

Tuesday's fighting erupted about 11 hours after Musharraf issued his warning to tribal leaders that they must cooperate and hand over wanted suspects to authorities. Troops entered the Kalosha area, home to about 200 tribal families, to demolish the houses of three wanted tribesmen who allegedly refused to surrender.

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