Fighting ongoing in Miranshah, bad guys using heavy weapons, led by Taliban cleric
Pakistani army helicopters pounded mountains near the Afghan border on Sunday after nearly 50 people were killed in clashes with pro-Taliban militants, a resident of the area said.

The violence in the remote, semi-autonomous tribal region awash with weapons underscores the problems President Pervez Musharraf faces on his front in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

The violence erupted on Saturday as U.S. President George W. Bush met Musharraf in the capital, Islamabad, 300 km (200 miles) to the northeast of Miranshah. The presidents reaffirmed their commitment to the war on terrorism.

"Fighting continued throughout the night with both sides using heavy weapons," a resident of Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan region, said on Sunday.

A military spokesman said 46 militants and three government troops were killed in Saturday's clashes.

The overnight exchanges of fire eased off in the morning but helicopter gunships later fired rockets into mountains to the east of Miranshah, sending plumes of smoke and dust into the sky.

Virtually all of the town's shops were boarded up and streets and markets deserted. The ruins of a bank attacked and set on fire in Saturday's fighting smouldered, the resident said.

Ethnic Pashtuns inhabit Waziristan as well as Afghan areas on the other side of the border and many people support the Taliban, most of whose leaders and rank-and-file are Pashtun.

Many al Qaeda members fled to Waziristan after U.S. and Afghan opposition forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, and they were given refuge by conservative Pakistani Pashtun clans.

The Pakistani government has been trying to clear foreign militants from the border and subdue their Pakistani allies and hundreds of people have been killed in clashes since late 2004.

The army said 45 militants suspected of links to al Qaeda, including Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Afghans, were killed in a security force raid on a hideout in the same area on Wednesday.

Thousands of people fled Miranshah after Wednesday's violence and many of those who stayed on were streaming out on foot on Sunday, the resident said.

Most of the Pakistani militants are young Pashtun men, many of them loyal to a powerful Islamist cleric, Maulana Abdul Khaliq Haqqani.

An intelligence official said on Saturday government forces had attacked Haqqani's headquarters, an Islamic school known as a madrasa, but his fate was not known.

The top government official in North Waziristan, Zaheer-ul-Islam, said authorities would not tolerate militant opposition.

"We have forcefully responded to their attack and any place which the militants used as a base to launch attacks will be wiped out," he told Reuters.

The toll in Saturday's fighting in Miranshah and the nearby town of Mir Ali might have been higher than about 50 as militants were believed to have taken away and buried their dead, he said.

Most of Miranshah's population of more than 300,000 people had fled, residents said. Many people had left after last week's fighting, with most families leaving only a man or two behind to look after their property.

In December, the pro-Taliban militants battled rivals in and around Miranshah, beheading and stringing up several bodies in a gruesome show of strength. The government played down the violence saying traditional tribal councils would sort it out.
Posted by: Dan Darling 2006-03-05