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Fighting Intensifies in Pakistan's Tribal Border Area

Pakistani officials say at least 135 people have been killed after four days of sometimes intense fighting between local and foreign militants in the country's remote tribal region. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports the four-day battle shows no sign of easing.

The growing conflict is centered in the restive South Waziristan tribal region, not far from the Afghan border.

Fighting erupted Monday between local tribesmen and several hundred Central Asian militants.

Pakistani authorities say most of the casualties are Uzbek nationalists who may be linked to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

Local residents say the fighting started after tribesmen tried to force the Uzbek militants out of Waziristan.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Wahid Arshad says the conflict is, at least in part, the result of a government push to enlist local support in the fight against foreign extremists operating inside Pakistan.

"The tribes are part of the government's effort. They have an agreement with the government and they (the tribes) are the ones who are fighting them, the foreign militants and their supporters," Arshad said.

The government signed a series of controversial peace agreements with local tribesmen who have promised to get rid of foreign militants in exchange for a freer hand in local affairs.

Hundreds of Arab and Central Asian militants entered the region from neighboring Afghanistan in 2001 after U.S. forces ousted the hard-line Islamist Taleban regime.

U.S. and Afghan officials say the militants, including hundreds of Uzbek nationalists, established a series of bases in both North and South Waziristan.

But government critics say the current fighting is not necessarily a sign of progress.

Retired General Talat Masood says the violence is more of an internal power struggle between rival militant factions.

On one side, he says, there are the foreign extremists with ties to al-Qaida. On the other are the local tribes, many of whom still support the Taleban and remain deeply opposed to Pakistan's central government.

He says neither side is inclined toward supporting Islamabad and neither side is likely to help improve regional security.