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Pakistanis claim bad guys fled Miranshah
Pakistan's government says its security forces now control the main town in the tribal region of North Waziristan after days of fierce fighting that left an estimated 100 Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants dead. Islamabad says Miran Shah -- less than 10 kilometers from the Afghan border -- has been placed under an indefinite curfew as Pakistani troops search for militants who may still be hiding. The area is closed to journalists. But correspondents from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan have been talking to refugees who say the militants still control strategic positions in the mountains near the border with Pakistan.

Pakistani military spokesman Shaukat Sultan says government forces have recaptured the main town in the tribal region of North Waziristan from Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

"From the incident at Miran Shah, the terrorists have fled," he said.

Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters seized the town -- which is less than 10 kilometers from the border with Afghanistan -- during a fierce battle against Pakistani government forces that began last week.

Residents describe it as the bloodiest fighting in Pakistan's tribal regions in more than two years. The battle marks an escalation in Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's campaign against Al-Qaeda fighters, Taliban militants, and their sympathizers.

The battle also highlights Islamabad's failure to establish government control in a mountainous tribal region thought to be a possible hiding place of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Residents of Miran Shah and the nearby village of Mir Ali told correspondents from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that Taliban fighters still control strategic mountain positions nearby.

Sporadic fighting was reported overnight and early today in the mountains that lie between Miran Shah and the Afghan border -- with government forces calling in air strikes by fighter jets and helicopter gunships.

Journalists have been banned from entering Miran Shah and a government curfew was in place today. But a Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent has been interviewing refugees as they cross the border into the Afghan province of Khost.

"[Refugees say] the fighting between the two sides intensified after the Mulawi Abdul Khaliq -- the head of a very large madrasah [in North Waziristan] -- called a meeting of religious scholars in the area and they asked the residents of Miran Shah and Mir Ali to resist the government forces," the correspondent reported. "They used loudspeakers to broadcast this message to people."

A resident of Miran Shah named Abdullah told our correspondent that he fled his home early on March 6 and only managed to cross the Afghan border this morning.

"The situation in Miran Shah [was] extremely bad [when I left]," he said. "The fighting has been going on [for days] and people could not walk around. Fighter jets were flying overhead and dropping bombs. The bazaar of Miran Shah was captured by the Taliban. All routes in and out of the town were closed. People are being killed by air strikes if they leave. And from the ground, the Taliban also does not let people go outside."

Another resident of Miran Shah named Gul arrived at the Afghan border early today. He told RFE/RL that the Taliban had removed defensive fortifications and military equipment from government buildings before leaving the town themselves.

"Further up in the high mountains [between Miran Shah and the Afghan border], the government forces cannot advance," he said. "And the Taliban is in full control. They do not let the villagers come out of their houses -- and if they leave their homes they will be killed. There is no one to collect the bodies or transport the injured to the hospitals. The situation was like this late [Monday] night."

Other refugees who have crossed into Afghanistan say hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting. They also say supplies of water and electricity to Miran Shah have been cut off along with communications, sanitation services, public transportation, and health facilities.

On the Pakistan side of the border, Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent in Peshawar reports that thousands of villagers from North Waziristan have been trying to flee to other parts of Pakistan. Those who have managed to get out of the battle zone tell RFE/RL they feel lucky to be alive.

Sikandar Qayyum, Pakistan's additional secretary for the federally administered tribal areas, says he can confirm that at least 146 people have been killed since the fighting began.

Officials in Islamabad say they think about 100 of the dead are Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters. Complete information about casualties among government troops is not available. But military officials claim as few as five government soldiers have been killed.
Posted by:Dan Darling