WANA, PakistanÂ – Hundreds of militants in northwest Pakistan attacked and captured a paramilitary fort early on Wednesday, and 40 militants and seven soldiers were killed and 20 soldiers missing, the military said.
The militants attacked the fort in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border at about midnight on Tuesday and fighting went on for hours, military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said.
“About 200 miscreants attacked from different directions,” Abbas said.
“They were able to breach one of the walls of the fort. In the process, there were about 40 militants dead and seven FC personnel were reported killed,” he said, referring to the Frontier Corps paramilitary force.
Fifteen soldiers escaped and 20 were missing, he said.
A spokesman for the militants, Maulvi Omar, said they had killed 16 soldiers and captured 12 in the attack. He said only two of his men were killed.
“The fort is still in our control,” he said.
Security forces have been battling al Qaeda-linked militants in South Waziristan for several years.
The Sara Rogha area where the fort is located is a stronghold of al Qaeda-linked militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who the government said was behind the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi on December 27.
Security forces retaliated with heavy artillery fire throughout Wednesday, residents of the area said.
SUSPECTED SUICIDE BOMBERS
Militants flocked to Waziristan and other parts of the Afghan-Pakistani border in the 1980s to support Afghan guerrillas fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
Many al Qaeda and Taliban members took refuge on the Pakistani side of the border after U.S.-led troops ousted Aghanistan’s Taliban government weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Pakistani forces have been trying to expel foreign militants and subdue their Pakistani allies in the lawless tribal belt along the border, where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.
Separately, a bomb exploded as a military patrol was passing along a road in the Swat valley in North West Frontier Province on Wednesday but there was no immediate word on casualties, police said.
Security forces have been trying to clear hundreds of militants from the Swat valley since November.
A wave of militant violence in recent months, including many suicide bomb attacks, has added to a sense of crisis in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf has been facing opposition to his rule.
Police in the southern city of Hyderabad said they had arrested three suspected suicide bombers from North West Frontier Province.
“We recovered some weapons and material from them which suggests they were suicide bombers,” said a senior police officer. He did not elaborate.