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Pakistan Government Touts Success in Fight Against Foreign Militants


Pakistani tribal forces near the Afghan border say they have defeated hundreds of Uzbek militants after several weeks of sometimes intense combat. Military officials say the apparent victory vindicates a series of controversial government agreements with area tribes, many of which remain defiantly anti-American and pro-Taleban. VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand has more from Islamabad.

More than 250 people were killed during the nearly month-long conflict in South Waziristan.

Government officials say most of the casualties were foreign militants, primarily Uzbek nationalists with suspected ties to the al-Qaida terror network.

Major General Gul Muhammad briefed reporters Wednesday after giving a rare tour of the conflict area, normally off limits to journalists because of security concerns.

The general says local tribesmen have pushed the Uzbek militants out of the valleys surrounding the area's main town, Wana.

He says the tribes are still hunting foreign forces in the almost impenetrable mountains along the Afghan border.

Even with military support, he says it will be difficult to dislodge the well-armed Uzbeks.

"It may not be simple and easy to achieve and will require sacrifices," he said. "This conflict will take time to finish, we need to be patient to see the results."

Officials say the tribal campaign is the product of a controversial government push to enlist local support in the fight against foreign extremists operating inside Pakistan.

Thousands of central Asian extremists found refuge in Pakistan's isolated tribal regions after U.S. forces toppled the hard-line Islamist Taleban government in Afghanistan in 2001.

U.S. and Afghan officials say the militants, including hundreds of Uzbek nationalists, established bases in North and South Waziristan, which they use to launch raids into Afghanistan.

General Gul says the tribal campaign in South Waziristan has already virtually eliminated the cross-border violence.

He says the government is also about to construct a 12-kilometer fence along the border to help seal off one of the militants' clandestine routes into Afghanistan.

Tuesday, tribal elders in Wana warned local residents that people found sheltering the Uzbek militants would have their houses destroyed and be fined about $16,000.

But security experts here in Pakistan say the conflict may not be as clear-cut as the government portrays it.

The tribal forces are led by a militant commander, Maulvi Mohammad Nazir, who is considered one of South Waziristan's highest-ranking Taleban commanders.

Local news media say Nazir may have launched the campaign after the Uzbeks killed one of his key allies, an Arab militant alleged to have ties to al-Qaida.

The reports suggest the fighting in South Waziristan may, ultimately, be little more than an internal power struggle between competing groups of pro-Taleban militants.