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Pakistan reassures U.S. on battle against militancy

Times Staff Writer

Amid a surge of fighting in Pakistan’s borderlands and a suicide attack on a military installation, President Pervez Musharraf assured a senior U.S. envoy Thursday that his government has been doing all it can to fight Islamic militancy.

At least 15 soldiers were killed in the attack on the mess hall of an army installation about 60 miles south of Islamabad, the capital, military officials said.

Separately, Pakistani military officials said government troops had killed dozens of insurgents in two days of fierce fighting in North and South Waziristan, the most restive of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Local militant sources said dozens of soldiers also were killed, which was flatly denied by the chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad.

Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte’s visit had been scheduled months earlier, but comes as Musharraf is struggling to cope with a domestic political crisis challenging his rule as well as an increase in militant attacks against the military.

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In his previous position as national intelligence director, Negroponte warned this year that senior Al Qaeda figures had found sanctuary in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas.

During this visit, however, Negroponte has not made public mention of that assessment, instead taking pains to praise Pakistan’s role in combating Islamic insurgents.

“There is no doubt whatsoever of Pakistan’s commitment to restoring and establishing security in that part of the country and doing more than its share in the war against terror,” Negroponte told reporters Wednesday.

After the meeting, Musharraf’s office issued a statement saying that “the president reaffirmed Pakistan’s firm resolve to fight extremism and terrorism.”

It also said the United States had committed $750 million over five years for development in the tribal areas, among the country’s poorest regions.

Pakistan has deployed more than 90,000 troops in the borderlands, where U.S. intelligence says Al Qaeda and Taliban elements have been regrouping and rearming. Thousands more troops were sent into the tribal areas after militants began a campaign of suicide bombings in revenge for a July showdown in Islamabad in which government forces stormed a radical mosque.

However, the military campaign has produced no notable successes, and some embarrassing failures. Militants last month captured at least 200 troops -- they apparently surrendered without firing a shot -- and the government has been trying to broker their release.

Given the precariousness of Musharraf’s political situation, Negroponte has been careful to avoid any criticism of the president’s recent actions, including the summary deportation of a top opposition leader this week. He reiterated U.S. hope that the political process, including parliamentary elections to be held by early next year, will be peaceful.

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In Pakistan, high-profile action against militant groups has sometimes coincided with the visits of high-ranking U.S. officials. A senior Taliban leader was captured on the day Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in March.

Thursday’s vehicle-borne suicide bomb at Ghazi Tarbela, a base used by elite troops, was the second attack this month on a military installation near the capital. On Sept. 4, a pair of suicide bombings in the garrison town of Rawalpindi killed 25 people.

In the most recent clashes in North and South Waziristan, Pakistani military officials said as many as 50 militants were killed Thursday and about 30 the day before. Troops used helicopter gunships and heavy artillery after insurgents attacked a military base, they said.

Militant sources and local tribal leaders said nearly 100 troops had been killed in the fighting.

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The clashes have been taking place in remote areas that are closed to outsiders, and it was not possible to verify the casualty claims by either side.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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