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Militants Kill Eight Tribal Leaders in Pakistan's Volatile North West

Suspected Islamic militants have killed eight tribal leaders involved in brokering a peace deal between the army and Islamic insurgents in Pakistan's volatile northwest region near the border with Afghanistan. The killings come as the Pakistan government repeats it position that no U.S. or other foreign troops will be allowed to operate in the country. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins has more from Islamabad.

Suspected Islamic militants linked to al Qaida shot and killed eight tribal leaders who were trying to broker a government-sponsored peace deal between the insurgents and the army, the military said on Monday.

The killings took place late Sunday in the country's volatile mountainous tribal region of South Waziristan in the North West Frontier Province near the Afghan border region where al-Qaida and Taliban militants are believed to operate.

South Waziristan is also home to the al-Qaida linked Islamic militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who the government blames for the December 27 assassination of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Mehsud denies responsibility for Ms. Bhutto's assassination and her supporters blame the government.

The government has been fighting Islamic militants in the tribal regions near the Afghan border, trying to rid the region of Islamic militants and foreign fighters, and impose the rule of law.

Pakistan's military launched a major offensive last November against Islamic insurgents in the northwestern Swat Valley, a former tourist destination. The military said it killed over 300 militants during the offensive.

Terrorism expert and author Ahmed Rashid says many people in the region are afraid of the Taliban but distrustful of the government.

"They don't trust the government, they don't want to join the government against the militants because they feel the government will not be able to protect them or even to fulfill whatever promises are made, said Rashid. "So that's why people are afraid of supporting the government and they tend to keep quiet or they support the militants."

Pakistan is a close U.S. ally in its war on terror and has received millions of dollars in aid to help fight Islamic militants in the country.

Reacting to a New York Times article that the Bush administration was considering expanding U.S. military and intelligence operations in the tribal regions, Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman, Mohammad Sidiq, said Monday only Pakistan forces would be allowed to operate in the region.

"I think the government of Pakistan has taken a very clear position from the very beginning," said Sidiq. "Any action on Pakistan's territory will be taken by Pakistan's armed forces and Pakistan's agencies. No foreign country will be allowed to take action on Pakistan territory."

The U.S. government has been pressuring the government of President Pervez Musharraf to crackdown on Islamic militants operating in the country.