Hundreds of Islamic militants and Pakistani government paramilitary troops engaged in heavy fighting for more than six hours on Tuesday at a fort in the Pakistani tribal areas, just miles from the Afghan border, Pakistani officials said. At least 8 soldiers and an estimated 24 Islamic militants were killed, officials added, while 18 soldiers were reported missing.
Pakistani officials said the fighting had not involved Osama bin Laden or other senior leaders of Al Qaeda, who are believed to be hiding in the border area.
But the officials said it was by far the heaviest clash since Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, sent 70,000 troops into the country’s isolated tribal areas two years ago to capture suspected Qaeda members.
In the past several weeks, Pakistani and American forces have stepped up operations in the border region in a spring offensive intended to rout Taliban fighters from their hiding places and, apparently, to capture Mr. bin Laden.
Pakistani officials have said they are under enormous pressure from Washington to find him. This week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is to visit Islamabad, the capital, to discuss the hunt for the Qaeda leaders and other matters.
Pakistani officials said the clashes had erupted when a force of about 300 Pakistani paramilitary fighters had tried to detain suspected Qaeda members and local tribesmen believed to be sheltering them in a mud-brick compound in the village of Kaloosha in South Waziristan.
Before they could get inside, they found themselves surrounded by 400 to 500 militants, officials said.
The officials expressed surprise at the strength and breadth of the resistance, which they said had come from both local and foreign militants. “Their level of training and resilience has surprised us all,” said a senior government official in Wana, the administrative center of South Waziristan.
The government forces were eventually rescued when reinforcements arrived, but not before they suffered heavy casualties, the senior official said. Militants also ambushed government forces in at least two other locations in South Waziristan, including the village of Dabkoot.
An alliance of hard-line religious parties has accused General Musharraf of bowing to American pressure and has warned that civil war will erupt in the tribal areas if the government continues its raids.
In the last six months, the death toll from raids in South Waziristan has sharply risen. Last month soldiers mistakenly killed 11 civilians at a checkpoint. In January four soldiers died in attack by militants. And in October, 8 soldiers and 18 suspected Qaeda members died in a clash. Before that, 10 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a failed raid in June 2002.
Officials in Islamabad played down the clashes on Tuesday. “Let me make it clear that it is a routine search operation,” said the army’s official spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.
But a statement from the government agency that administers the tribal areas said at least 8 soldiers had been killed and 15 wounded when “foreigners supported by local harborers” opened fire with “heavy and light weapons.” The statement said only 2 of an estimated 24 militants killed in the clashes were foreigners.
The battle began at 6:30 a.m. when roughly 300 Pakistani paramilitary troops, known as Scouts, surrounded a large mud-brick compound, said government officials and residents of Azam Warsak, a nearby village.
When the raid began, several vehicles were able to escape while militants inside the compound provided covering fire, the senior government official said.
Later, militants were able to take positions in apple orchards and virtually encircle the paramilitary forces, including their local commander, Col. Khalid Usman, government officials said. Four hundred Pakistani regular army troops sent to the scene rescued them.
Residents reached by telephone in Azam Warsak, described the fighting as fierce and the atmosphere as tense. They said efforts by local religious leaders to calm the situation had failed, including calls for restraint broadcast from local mosques.
They also complained that the clash had come after three months of Pakistani officials putting pressure on tribes along the border to hand over suspected militants and those who harbor them. American military officials say Taliban and Al Qaeda forces use the Pakistani side of the border as a base to attack American forces inside nearby Afghanistan.
But Al Qaeda and the Taliban are believed to enjoy widespread popular support in the mountainous and isolated tribal areas, the poorest and most religiously conservative parts of Pakistan.
South Waziristan, the scene of the fighting on Tuesday, is the largest and poorest of seven federally administered tribal areas where fiercely independent tribes have been allowed to govern their own affairs for centuries.