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4 Pakistani Soldiers, 3 Suspected Militants Killed in Gunbattle - 2004-03-16

Pakistan says four of its paramilitary soldiers were killed and two injured during a day-long operation in the country's semi-autonomous tribal region Tuesday. Three suspected militants were also killed. Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps engaged suspected militants in a gun battle in South Waziristan, just kilometers from the Afghan border.

The operation is the latest in a series of actions aimed at flushing out suspected foreign terrorists, said to be using the remote tribal region as a safe haven.

The country's president, Pervez Musharraf, said Monday that 500-600 foreign militants, including those with links to the al-Qaida terror network, are hiding in Pakistan's tribal belt.

Military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan Khan says, however, that the figure is not meant to represent hard intelligence.

"It was just … an assessment, and it could be anybody's guess," said Mr. Khan. "He said, okay, maybe up to 500 or so, that is it. I don't think there is a list. If we had a list, probably we would have got hold … of the people."

Local tribal leaders have also organized militias of their own, working in conjunction with Pakistan's military. But the tribal militias' efforts have so far yielded few results and the central government is said to be placing increased pressure on local elders to do more.

General Sultan said Tuesday's operation was based on a tip-off that some suspected militants were seen in the area.

In addition to al-Qaida suspects, the tribal region is also believed to be rife with Afghan insurgents loyal to that country's former Taleban regime.

Pakistan increased its military deployment along the Afghan border last year in an effort to keep those militants from crossing the porous frontier.

The latest operation comes a day before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is due in Pakistan to discuss anti-terrorism efforts.