Fighting between local and foreign militants Friday killed 52 people, bringing to more than 200 the number of dead in recent days in a conflict between Pakistanis and suspected al Qaeda-linked extremists, a senior official said.
Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said 45 Uzbek militants and seven tribesmen died in battles in South Waziristan, a lawless region used as a rear base by Taliban militants fighting in Afghanistan and where the United States fears that al Qaeda is regrouping.
Pakistani officials say the clashes have vindicated controversial agreements signed last year between the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler, and tribal elders in the border region, reports CBS News' Farhan Bokhari.
Those agreements allowed the government to withdraw military troops from the area in return for promises that the tribesmen will stop anyone from venturing into Afghanistan to fight alongside that country's resurging Taliban movement. Western diplomats criticized the agreements as a compromise which gave a loophole to militants.
But on Friday night, a senior Pakistani security official who spoke to CBS News on condition that he would not be named said, "These clashes and casualties prove that the tribesmen are living up to their promises."
Since fighting began last week, 213 people have been killed, including 177 Uzbeks and their local allies, Sherpao told The Associated Press.
The minister said the conflict intensified Friday after foreigners failed to comply with an ultimatum from tribal elders to leave their territory. Security officials said tribal militias had fired rockets at the hideouts of the foreigners in several locations.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official who spoke to CBS News on condition that he would not be named said most of those killed were loyal to Tahir Yuldashev, the notorious militant from the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan who is a key support of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Three years ago, Pakistani intelligence officials reported Yuldashev was beginning to establish camps across Pakistan's tribal region for his followers from Uzbekistan.
"We believe, the infrastructure set up by Yuldashev has been demolished in the (Pakistani) tribal areas" said the intelligence officer.
An aide to Maulvi Nazir, the leader of the purportedly pro-government side in the conflict, said earlier Friday that they had killed 35 Uzbeks and lost 10 of their own men. He said both sides were using heavy weapons. The aide, who spoke to AP by telephone, asked for anonymity to prevent enemies from identifying him.
South Waziristan is generally off-limits to journalists, making it hard to verify reports of the fighting.
Under pressure from the United States to do more against the Taliban and al Qaeda, the government has claimed that the violence in South Waziristan vindicates its policy of using traditional leaders, and not the army, to combat militancy along the border.
The government claims Nazir, a tribal chief previously aligned with the Taliban, has come over to their side.
Some analysts, however, say militants with links to Taliban and al Qaeda are involved on both sides of the current conflict, which also pits local tribes against each other, and that blood feuds could deepen insecurity in a region viewed as a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.
Hundreds of Central Asian and Arab militants linked to al Qaeda fled to the semiautonomous region after the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and forged alliances with local tribes. Other Uzbeks opposed to the regime of President Islam Karimov reportedly have since joined them.
As part of its support of the U.S.-led war on terror, Pakistan launched military operations in 2004 to wipe out the foreign militants. They succeeded in busting camps used by al Qaeda, but suffered hundreds of casualties and failed to expel the foreign fighters.
More recently, Pakistan has cut deals with pro-Taliban militants and urged local tribal elders to police the region themselves.