DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – Pakistani tribesmen, bolstered by waves of volunteers, have killed dozens more foreign militants allegedly linked to Al Qaeda near the Afghan border, officials said Wednesday.
The latest deaths push the toll from more than two weeks of fighting in the South Waziristan region to more than 250, officials have said, leading the government to claim a victory against terrorism.
Armed tribesmen turned on foreign militants and their local allies in the lawless region, where Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters have long found sanctuary, on March 19, apparently after a long-standing feud turned violent.
According to three security officials on Wednesday, about 50 of those killed in the past 24 hours in South Waziristan were Uzbeks. About 10 local tribesmen and one Pakistani soldier also died, they said.
The officials asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to make media statements.
Poor security in the region, where the government has minimal control, puts it largely off-limits to reporters, making it hard to verify what little information emerges.
Hundreds of Central Asian militants settled in Pakistan's remote border zone over the past two decades, where they have formed alliances with some of the tribes and married into local clans.
Some came to fight in the Afghan war against Soviet forces in the 1980s, others to escape U.S. forces that drove the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan in 2001 or repression in their home countries.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally, has failed to prevent Taliban fighters and leaders finding sanctuary and support in the same region for their insurgency in Afghanistan.
However, his government have cracked down more visibly on suspected Al Qaeda affiliates. It scaled back army operations in the border region last year under a series of agreements for tribal leaders to disarm or expel foreigners living there.
On Monday, a council of elders in Wana, South Waziristan's main town, declared jihad, or holy war, against the Central Asians, accusing them of disregarding local traditions and killing tribesmen, and beat traditional war drums to raise a militia.
"Over the past two days there were efforts to raise a lashkar," or tribal militia, Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said. "They have sent 200 people and they will send more" to fight the foreigners, he said.
One security official said the fighting was focused on the village of Doza Ghundai. He said dozens of Uzbeks had surrendered.
He also said that one Pakistani soldier was killed and five others wounded. The circumstances were unclear.
The army insists it is not directly involved in the fighting, though has suggested that troops may respond with artillery if they come under attack. Four army troops were killed at the weekend by rocket fire.
The main commander of the tribal militia battling the foreign militants is Maulvi Nazir, a known Taliban sympathizer, intelligence officials and local residents have said.
U.S. officials say Musharraf's dealmaking with fiercely independent tribal leaders has so far failed to curb the resurgent Taliban's cross-border attacks on foreign troops in Afghanistan. However, some Pakistani commentators see signs for optimism.
"The turning of the local tribesmen with such intensity against the foreign militants is a welcome development on which the government must build," the Dawn newspaper said in an editorial Wednesday.
"Ultimately, there has to be a negotiated settlement to all that is going on in the tribal belt," it said.