Clashes Kill 9 in Pakistan Border Region

Pakistani security forces and militants clashed on Sunday in fighting that killed at least nine people in the mountains near the Afghan border where Al Qaeda-linked fighters are believed to be hiding, military officials said.

Between six and eight militants were killed during the fighting in Kani Guram, a mountainous area about 30 miles northeast of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan (search), said Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan. He didn't say whether the dead suspects were foreigners or local tribesmen.

Army officials in the capital of Islamabad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said three soldiers died in the clashes.

Military officials said mortar, rocket and small arms fire continued throughout the day.

One of the officials said bodies of some militants had been spotted on mountainsides but could not be retrieved because of the fighting.

Residents reported hearing heavy gunfire starting at dawn Sunday.

Zafar Ali, who lives in Kani Guram, said helicopter gunships bombed Asman Manza, a nearby mountain peak. Residents also reported seeing at least four military pickup trucks carrying injured people, although it wasn't clear who the injured were.

Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, has conducted a series of bloody military operations in South Waziristan this year that have left scores dead.

The latest began on Thursday when the army said fighter jets and helicopter gunships smashed an alleged Al Qaeda-linked terrorist training facility northeast of Wana, killing 50 militants. Ten other suspected militants were killed elsewhere the same day. The army said many of the dead fighters were Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs.

An army spokesman, Brig. Shahjehan Ali Khan, denied a newspaper report Sunday that civilians were killed in the raid on the training camp. The Dawn daily said that half of the dead were local people, and had included some students.

Pakistan frequently claims to have captured or killed foreigners that turn out to be local tribesmen, or to have zeroed in on top Al Qaeda (search) men who never materialize. Villagers have also complained of heavy civilian casualties.

On Sunday, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Susan Meisner, said the coalition there was monitoring the Afghan side of the border in case the Pakistani operations pushed "enemy forces across the border."

About 18,000 U.S.-led forces are deployed in Afghanistan (search) in the hunt for Al Qaeda holdouts and fighters of the former ruling Taliban regime.

Hundreds of foreign fighters are believed to be hiding in South Waziristan, where Usama bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri, are also suspected of sheltering, although there is no hard evidence that they are in the area.