B. Muralidhar Reddy

Exchange of fire near Afghan border

ISLAMABAD: At least 100 persons, including three members of the Pakistan para-military forces, were killed on Saturday in an operation against suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives in the frontier of the Waziristan tribal agency bordering Afghanistan.

It is perhaps one of the bloodiest battles in the theatre of warfare between the military and the alleged militants sheltered there for over three years now.

Pakistan claims to have deployed over 80,000 military and para-military forces on the border to take on the operatives after they fled Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. led intervention in October 2001.

There have been several efforts in vain by President Pervez Musharraf to secure their peaceful surrender along with their protectors.

The alleged operations of the militants across Afghanistan has been a source of major friction between Kabul and Islamabad.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, during his recent visit, claimed to have presented evidence of the presence and operations of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban. The claim was rejected by Gen. Musharraf as "ridiculous." This was one of the major topics between Gen. Musharraf and Mr. Bush on Saturday and the U.S. President said Washington expected Islamabad to do "lot more" in taking on the Al-Qaeda.

According to local media reports, most of the casualties in the tribal belt on Saturday occurred after the military had targeted a telephone exchange in Miranshah, headquarters of North Waziristan tribal agency. There were reports that the Taliban had taken control of the exchange.

Several more were killed when helicopter gunships bombed the exchange. The militants had occupied it earlier in the day. The building was wiped out in the attack.

Miranshah residents who fled the town said the gunships attacked the buildings and hotel rooftops occupied by the militants.

According to Director General of Inter Services Public Relations and army spokesman Shaukat Sultan, 25 militants were killed in Miranshah and 21 in Mir Ali. He said the toll could be higher.