ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Islamic militants in Pakistan attacked a fort near the Afghan border Tuesday, one of two clashes with government forces that left seven troops and 37 fighters dead, the army said. In Europe, President Pervez Musharraf said border attacks were "pinpricks" that his government must manage.
The attack, the second this month, occurred in South Waziristan, a lawless tribal region where al-Qaida- and Taliban-linked militants operate.
The militants targeted the Lahda Fort, which houses paramilitary troops, and a nearby observation post in a pre-dawn raid in South Waziristan, located along the border with Afghanistan, the military said in a statement.
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Thirty-seven militants and five troops were killed in the intense fighting, the statement said. Two other soldiers were killed in a clash in the neighboring North Waziristan, it said.
The violence in the border region, as well as a series of suicide attacks that have killed hundreds in recent months, is triggering uncertainty in the country ahead of Feb. 18 elections that many predict will weaken Musharraf's grip on power.
But Musharraf, in Paris as part of an eight-day trip through Europe aimed at rebuilding Western support, rejected claims that the violence was a sign of a resurgent Taliban. More than 150 rebels and soldiers are reported to have been killed in the region this month alone.
"There is no Taliban offensive ... being launched," he said at a conference at the French Institute of International Relations think tank. "These are pinpricks that they keep doing -- and we have to manage all of that."
On Jan. 10, insurgents also attacked Lahda Fort. The military said then that between 40 and 50 of the attackers were killed. Last week, the militants overran a second fort in the region, leaving up to 22 soldiers dead or missing in a major embarrassment for the military.
The border region emerged as a front line in the war on terror after Pakistan allied itself with the U.S. following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Washington has given Pakistan billions of dollars in aid to help government forces battle militants.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration will fight efforts to curb billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Pakistan.
Ahead of talks with Musharraf in Switzerland on Wednesday,Rice said it is critical that February legislative elections be free and fair.
"The situation in Pakistan is very complicated, but our strong view is that we have to have a long-term, consistent, predictable relationship with Pakistan, not with any one person, but with the institutions of Pakistan," she said.
The border region, which has never been fully under the control of the central government, is believed to be home to Baitullah Mehsud, a militant leader blamed by Pakistan and the CIA for masterminding the Dec. 27 death of Benazir Bhutto in a gun and suicide attack.
A purported spokesman for Mehsud warned the military to stop its attacks in the region.
"The army is killing innocent people in our areas and we will take strong action by attacking soldiers wherever possible, if it does not stop such activities," Maulvi Mohammed Umar told The Associated Press by phone.
After the attack on the fort, two fighter jets bombed mountainside villages nearby, killing one civilian, said Rehmanullah Khan, who was injured in the leg by the bombing. Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said jets had flown reconnaissance missions, but no bombs were dropped.
"We have shortages of food," Khan said from a hospital in the nearby town of Miran Shah. "Most of the homes are now empty because people have left."
Meanwhile, security agencies arrested a suspected militant in the southern city of Karachi in connection with the attack on Bhutto, an intelligence official told the AP.
Yousuf Mehsud, who the official said was a close aide to Baitullah Mehsud, was detained late Monday after a tip-off, said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Last week, authorities arrested a 15-year-old boy they said was part of the team sent to kill Bhutto. Musharraf said Tuesday the boy had been "indoctrinated" by Mehsud.