17 More Soldiers Killed In Tribal Pakistan

Pakistan's opposition supporters hold an anti-government rally to condemn an operation against militants holding Islamabad's radical Red Mosque, Tuesday, July 17, 2007 in Karachi, Pakistan. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)
By CBS's Farhan Bokhari, reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

Pakistan's president General Pervez Musharraf, under mounting pressure in the wake of a fast worsening security situation in the South Asian country, on Wednesday refuted suggestions that he was about to impose a state of emergency – an act that would delay elections for year and give exceptional powers to the government to take action against suspected militants.

In a meeting with Pakistan's top newspaper editors, the US backed General Musharraf said, he was determined to oversee elections in the country by end of this year.

But before General Musharraf spoke, at least 17 soldiers were killed in another militant attack in the north Waziristan region of the tribal territory along the Afghan border, taking this month's death toll in bloody violence in Pakistan to more than 120. This followed Tuesday night's suspected suicide attack in Islamabad which killed 16 people.

Senior Pakistani officials said, they were still seeking to revive a peace agreement with local tribal leaders in the north Waziristan region, unilaterally ended by tribal chiefs on Sunday. The agreement was seen pivotal to improving security in that region which according to western and Pakistani intelligence officials, continues to be the home to a number of "Al Qaeda" and "Taliban" militants.

That agreement, struck last autumn, was the cornerstone of the Pakistani government's efforts to consolidate a fragile peace process. Under the agreement, the government announced it was pulling back military troops in return for promises from tribal leaders to stop anyone from venturing into Afghanistan to fight Afghan forces and Western troops, including the U.S. military.

Since the agreement was struck, Western officials including U.S. officials have criticized it on the grounds that it had given sanctuary to militants holed up in the north Waziristan region and even allowed some to travel back and forth to Afghanistan, all with the purpose of joining the bands of anti-U.S. "Taliban" fighters.

Pakistani officials have been engaged in hectic backroom discussions with tribal leaders since Sunday. But increasing violence in the region has diminished hopes for the restoration of the agreement.

Tribal leaders are calling for a complete withdrawal of Pakistani military troops from north Waziristan before the agreement can be revived. But Pakistani officials insist more violence will only force them to send more troops to quell the unrest.

"How can you not have the military in place," said the Pakistani security official who spoke to CBS News, "when there's growing violence?"

Opinion among western and Pakistani officials is divided over the consequences of ending the agreement.

"This [breakdown] now forces General Pervez Musharraf [Pakistan's president] to look at reality as it is," a senior Western diplomat, said Wednesday in Islamabad, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The hope of pulling out troops was a non-starter, at least not till the base of terrorists in Waziristan is totally wiped out."

Pakistani officials insist the only way to move forward is through the support and cooperation of local tribal leaders. "Without having the local population on our side, we can't make progress," concluded the Pakistani security official who spoke to CBS News.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has been put on "red alert" - the highest level of peacetime alert after the Islamabad blast. One senior Pakistani security official who spoke to CBS NEWSon the condition of anonymity said; "The crisis is deepening and more attacks may come".

Farhan Bokhari has been covering southeast Asia for several large European news organizations for 16 years. Based in Islamabad, his focus is security issues, in particular al Qaeda and the regional aspects of the global fight against terrorism.
By Farhan Bokhari