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Tense Fighting On Afghan Frontier

At least seven militants were killed Wednesday in a gunbattle with the Pakistani army in a tense border region where hundreds of al Qaeda militants are suspected to be hiding, officials said.

A mix of foreigners and local tribesmen were holed up in four fortress-like houses and were trading fire with soldiers in a mountainous area of South Waziristan about 25 miles from the Afghan frontier.

Brig. Mahmood Shah, chief of security for Pakistan's tribal regions, said the dead militants were foreigners. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan confirmed that the military had recovered three bodies and they "appeared to be foreigners."

Also Wednesday, an Afghan commander said that Afghan and U.S. forces killed more than 70 Taliban rebels in a seven-day operation in a mountainous southern district, including at least 20 militants who died in a single clash.

Coalition and Afghan forces returned late Tuesday from the scene of the fighting — the rugged Daychopan district of Zabul province — as the Taliban fighters they had been hunting had either been killed or fled the area, said Jan Mohammed Khan.

Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan are believed to be a possible hideout for Osama bin Laden and his chief aide, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Sultan said the Pakistan military had suffered some casualties in the latest fighting, but refused to give details before the operation was over in the Ghat Ghar area, about 20 miles west of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan.

Residents in the area fear a repeat of an army offensive in March — the largest since Pakistan joined the U.S.-led war on terrorism in late 2001 — that killed more than 120 people, including nearly 50 soldiers. Hundreds of Central Asian, Arab and Afghan fighters believed linked to al Qaeda escaped the sweep and remain at large.

A 4,000-strong tribal force charged with weeding out foreign militants from South Waziristan abruptly ended a vain, three-day hunt as the hostilities began.

Early Wednesday, assailants fired rockets and mortars at troops at two military checkpoints. Pakistani forces returned fire, and soldiers were sent to areas that appeared to be the source of the hostile fire.

"Both sides are using mortars and heavy weapons. A heavy exchange of fire is going on," Shah told The Associated Press in the northwestern city of Peshawar. "According to our information, eight people have been killed."

"Many of the militants are foreigners, but some locals are also with them," Shah said. "They are heavily armed. They have occupied these houses with force." He said the houses belonged to Nanokhel tribesmen.

Sultan said that one injured militant had been captured, but could give no details about his nationality or identity.

The army has previously warned that it could launch a military operation on "short notice" unless foreign militants hiding in South Waziristan surrender to Pakistani authorities.

Shah said Pakistani forces had surrounded an area stretching 10 miles between the two military checkposts that had come under fire.

"This operation will continue until these people are eliminated," he said.

In a bid to pressure tribesmen to get foreign militants to surrender — which the government says was part of a deal to end the bloody March operation — the military has recently imposed economic penalties, blocking roads to Wana and closing the local bazaar.

The government had offered foreign militants amnesty if they registered with local authorities and respected Pakistan's laws. None has accepted.

On Tuesday, the government gave the local Yargul Khel tribe 24 hours to hand over four elders, including Nek Mohammed, a former Taliban fighter who fought the army in the March operation, then agreed to cooperate with authorities.

The government says he was supposed to arrange the registration of foreign militants. Mohammed claims they've left the tribe's territory and fled to unknown areas, a claim the government disputes.

Officials say that if the Yargul Khel fails to hand over Mohammed, other tribal leaders would face arrest and their property could be confiscated or demolished.

Khan, who is commander of Afghan forces and also the governor of neighboring Uruzgan province, said 73 Taliban fighters were killed and 13 captured over seven days, while six Afghan government forces and four coalition soldiers were wounded, and none killed.

"We have finished our operation against the Taliban," Khan told The Associated Press.

U.S. military officials were not immediately available for comment. Previously, officials had reported at least 40 insurgents killed in the past week.

Daychopan, a remote area and Taliban stronghold, lies near the borders of two neighboring provinces, Uruzgan and Kandahar, some 190 miles southwest of Kabul.

Khan said that U.S.-led troops backed by jet fighters and helicopters on Tuesday launched an assault on 100 Taliban militants who ambushed a convoy in an area called Sharaboz Kothal.

"We collected 21 bodies," Khan said. "The rest ran back into the mountains." Among the dead were two local Taliban commanders, Mullah Jabar and Mullah Jalan.

On Wednesday, military spokesman Lt. Col. Tucker Mansager told reporters in Kabul that 20 anti-coalition fighters were killed in what he described as "the latest of several aggressive engagements by the Marines."

He said that two Marines and two allied Afghans were wounded — although earlier a Marine spokesman had said five Marines were hurt. Neither official mentioned air strikes.

Some 2,000 Marines based in Uruzgan have clashed repeatedly with large bands of militants in the region.