45 Militants Killed in Pakistan

Pakistani security forces backed by helicopter gunships struck a militant hide-out Wednesday in a tribal region near the Afghan border, killing more than 45 fighters including a Chechen commander linked to Al Qaeda, officials said.

One civilian and a soldier were also reported dead.

The raid came just days before a visit by President Bush to Pakistan during which the fight against Al Qaeda and loyalists of the former Taliban regime will be on the agenda.

The militants had entered Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region after they carried out an attack inside Afghanistan, said Syed Zaheerul Islam, the top government administrator of the region.

Three helicopter gunships attacked their mountain hide-out in the early morning near Saidgi, a village about nine miles west of Miran Shah, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said.

The assault "knocked out a den of foreign militants" and killed more than 45, an army statement said.

The dead included the Chechen commander, identified only by his code name, Imam. He died when a helicopter fired on the vehicle he was fleeing in, said an army official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

"This Chechen commander Imam was behind most of the attacks against Pakistani security forces along the Pakistan-Afghan border," said the official. "He was an important man for Al Qaeda linked militants, and he died with his three bodyguards."

Most of the dead militants were from Central Asian states and Arab countries.

Another security official said one soldier was killed and about a dozen were injured. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

One of the helicopters hit a bus with gunfire during the raid, killing a female passenger, said the injured driver, Sabbir Khan, from his hospital bed. The driver said a 20-year-old student on the bus was also injured.

An Associated Press reporter saw heavily armed students take eight paramilitary troops prisoner in Miran Shah, retaliating against the raid by security forces.

After capturing the troops, the Islamic students announced over loudspeakers that all the shops should close, said Zarmat Khan, owner of a shop selling cloth.

Pakistan — a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism — has been under pressure from the U.S. and Afghanistan to be more aggressive in flushing out militants and sealing off the border. Pakistan has deployed thousands of troops to North Waziristan and last year, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf suggested that a security fence be built along the border. But Afghanistan rejected that idea.

Pakistani officials have denied in the past that arrests of militants in Pakistan are timed to coincide with events in the United States. Bush arrives in Pakistan on Saturday from India.

An intelligence official in Miran Shah, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secretive nature of his job, said that army troops surrounded the site of Wednesday's operation late Tuesday.

The mountaintop hide-out was spotted about a week ago, said another intelligence official who also requested anonymity for the same reason. It was put under surveillance and the presence of Uzbek and Afghan militants and their local supporters was detected, he said.

Last month, Pakistan protested to the U.S. military in Afghanistan over firing that hit the same village, Saidgi, killing eight people.

Security officials have said earlier that hundreds of Arab, Afghan and Central Asian militants — allegedly linked with Al Qaeda — are in North and the adjoining South Waziristan tribal areas.