38 militants killed in NW Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: At least 38 militants were killed in fierce clashes in northwest Pakistan's Swat valley and the tribal region of South Waziristan, the military said Saturday as troops continued an offensive against the Taliban.

"During (the) last 24 hours, 38 militants were killed in Malakand and South Waziristan, while six soldiers including an officer embraced shahadat (martyrdom)," it said in a statement.

Malakand region includes Swat, Dir and Buner districts where the military has launched operations since April 26 against Taliban militants.

The death tolls provided could not be verified independently.

"Thirty-two terrorists were killed in Sarwakai town (in South Waziristan) in a retaliatory fire by security forces during a road clearance operation," the statement said.

The rugged South Waziristan region is the stronghold of Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, and Washington alleges that Al-Qaeda fighters who fled Afghanistan after the 2001 US-led invasion are holed up in the region.

Pakistani war planes Friday hit targets in South Waziristan, apparently in preparation for a full-scale military onslaught into the hostile peaks to track down and eliminate Mehsud and his network.

Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal regions are wracked by violence and are known as a hub for Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels who fled across the border to escape the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

Six other militants "were killed in an exchange of fire with security forces," in Swat valley, the military said.

It added that 17 soldiers were also wounded during clashes with militants in Malakand.

More than 1,500 insurgents and 134 soldiers have been killed in military operations launched in Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and in Swat on May 8.

Pakistani security forces launched the offensive to dislodge Taliban guerrillas from the three districts after rebels flouted a peace deal and thrust towards the capital Islamabad.

Pakistan has vowed to hunt down the commanders of the Taliban uprising in Swat, but the military is not totally certain of their whereabouts.

The government has slapped a 600,000-dollar price on the head of firebrand Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, wanted dead or alive, for masterminding the nearly two-year uprising in the valley to enforce sharia law.

The offensive has the backing of the United States and enjoys broad popular support among Pakistanis exasperated by worsening Taliban-linked attacks, which have killed more than 1,960 people in Pakistan since July 2007.

The operation led to the displacement of more than two million people fleeing the conflict zone to safer areas in the North West Frontier province.