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Pakistan says 300 foreign radicals slain

Special to The Times

Tribal fighters near the border with Afghanistan have killed 300 foreign militants allegedly linked to Al Qaeda over the last few weeks, President Pervez Musharraf said Thursday.

Speaking at a counterterrorism conference here in the capital, Musharraf acknowledged for the first time that Pakistan’s military had been assisting the tribesmen in their battle against mostly Uzbek militants who have found a haven in the remote, lawless region of South Waziristan.

“The people of South Waziristan now have risen against the foreigners,” Musharraf said. “They have killed about 300 of them, and they got support from the Pakistan army. They asked for support.”

Under a controversial deal struck last year, Musharraf scaled back troop deployments in the mountainous area in exchange for a pledge by tribal leaders to drive out militants tied to the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban movement. Hundreds of foreign radicals have taken shelter in South Waziristan in recent years, fleeing Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 or crackdowns in their home countries.

Critics have questioned the efficacy of such an agreement in a region known to sympathize with the Taliban, but Musharraf said the recent clashes showed that the strategy was working. Because of South Waziristan’s isolated location, however, the death toll cited by the Pakistani leader could not be verified.

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Fighting began early last month after a reported confrontation between an Uzbek and a tribal elder. Last week, tribesmen in Wana beat traditional war drums to rally more fighters.

Musharraf has been under increasing pressure from the United States to show results on his stated commitment to stamp out militancy and capture Al Qaeda followers hiding in Pakistan, especially in the border areas. Analysts say pro-Taliban forces receive training in camps on Pakistani territory and cross into Afghanistan to carry out attacks against American and other coalition troops.

Musharraf, an army general who seized power in a coup in 1999, said Thursday that 700 Al Qaeda members had been held since late 2001. He dismissed suggestions that the Pakistani military establishment was engaged in a double game, declaring support for the U.S. war on terrorism while tacitly allowing -- or even encouraging -- militants to operate.

“If Pakistan is bluffing, if I am bluffing and the ISI is bluffing, I think we should be out of the [anti-terrorism] coalition,” he said, referring to the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

In neighboring Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan troops killed at least two dozen Taliban militants in Zabol province early Thursday, the U.S.-led coalition said in a statement.

The joint force called in an airstrike after identifying “a large group” of Taliban fighters on a ridge, the statement said. After the militants scattered, some on motorcycles, warplanes pounded caves in the area.

The statement said 24 Taliban fighters died, but the Associated Press quoted an aide to the governor of Zabol as saying that 35 bodies were recovered.

U.S. and Afghan troops also uncovered a cache of weapons in a cave, the coalition said.

In eastern Afghanistan, two coalition soldiers were killed and one injured when their convoys were struck by two bombs within half an hour of each other, military officials said. No further details were released.

Officials said two soldiers died Wednesday evening in a bombing in southern Afghanistan, where Canadian forces form the largest coalition military presence.

henry.chu@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer Chu from New Delhi.


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