Pakistan has begun a fresh offensive against suspected al-Qaida militants believed to be hiding in a remote region near the Afghan border. Deadly clashes in the area on Tuesday left at least 39 people dead, including 15 paramilitary personnel.
Officials say Pakistani regular troops and paramilitary forces are taking part in the latest anti-terror operation in the mountainous tribal region known as South Waziristan. The area is just kilometers from the Afghan border and is believed to be hiding a large number of fugitive members of al-Qaida.
The fighting began early Thursday and officials say both sides are using heavy weapons.
The clashes in the region first broke out Tuesday when Pakistani paramilitary forces acting on a tip surrounded a hideout of suspected militants, but were forced to withdraw after coming under heavy attack. Officials say 15 paramilitary troops were killed and 22 wounded in that fighting. They say 24 suspected foreign militants were killed.
The chief of security for the country's semi-autonomous tribal areas, Brigadier Mahmood Shah, says this time the army is using regular troops. :This is the day before yesterday's operation in which we had given a pause," he says. "This has been renewed again with the Frontier Corps [paramilitary troops] in the lead. This time it supported by the army and some helicopters against the same elements."
Brigadier Shah says government forces were surprised by the strength of the militants. "I think they underestimated the strength of these militants, foreign elements. Normally we find them in numbers of twentiess and thirties in one place and that was the information on which they had launched this operation," he says. "Whereas the number of the foreign elements appeared to be more than 500 or some people put it at 600."
On the Afghan side of the border, the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition is also engaged in a major offensive against al-Qaida linked forces.