Pakistan forces murder three dozen militants in strike at Afghan border, officials report

Pakistani soldiers and helicopter gunships attacked a suspected al-Qaida camp Wednesday near the Afghan border, killing 45 militants and angering tribes who called for a new holy war just days before the U.S. president arrives, officials said.

As news of the early morning strike spread in the rugged northwestern region, tribesmen who sympathize with the militants came out of their homes and began firing in the air. A mosque loudspeaker urged people to "wage Jihad against the army."

The offensive was in North Waziristan , a region controlled by fiercely independent, well-armed tribes believed to be sheltering al-Qaida fugitives and Taliban remnants. The militants frequently cross over the long, porous Afghan-Pakistan border.

Three helicopter gunships attacked the militants' mountain hide-out near Saidgi, a village about 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of Miran Shah, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said.

The assault killed 45 militants mostly from Central Asian and Arab countries, said another army official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

The dead included an al-Qaida-linked Chechen commander, identified only by his code name, Imam, the army official said. He died when a helicopter fired on a vehicle he was fleeing in, he said.

"This Chechen commander Imam was behind most of the attacks against Pakistani security forces along the Pakistan-Afghan border," said the official. "He was an important man for al-Qaida linked militants, and he died with his three bodyguards."

Another security official said that one soldier was killed and about a dozen were injured. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to speak to the media.

One helicopter hit a bus with gunfire during the raid, killing a female passenger, said the injured driver, Sabbir Khan, from a hospital bed. The driver said a 20-year-old student on the bus was also injured.

Pakistan has been under pressure from the U.S. and Afghanistan to be more aggressive in flushing out the militants and sealing off the border. Last year, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf responded by suggesting that a security fence be built along the border.

Wednesday's operation came just three days before U.S. President George W. Bush's visit, and soon after Afghanistan handed intelligence to Pakistan that it said indicated that Taliban leader Mullah Omar and associates were hiding inside Pakistan .

But the operations are stirring up the population.

An Associated Press reporter saw heavily armed Islamic students take eight paramilitary troops prisoner in Miran Shah, retaliating against the raid by security forces.

After capturing the troops, the Islamic students announced over loudspeakers that all the shops should close, said Zarmat Khan, owner of a shop selling cloth.

"Close the bazaar. The situation has deteriorated. Innocent people have been attacked," Khan quoted the students as saying, reports the AP.


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