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Pakistan Says Seizes Taliban Base On Afghan Border

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani forces have captured a stronghold of Al-Qaeda-backed militants near the Afghan border after days of clashes in which 60 militants were killed, the military said.

Pakistani security forces mounted a major offensive in the ethnic-Pashtun Bajaur tribal region in 2008 and declared it largely cleared after months of clashes.

But militants, joined by comrades infiltrating from Afghanistan, staged a comeback in the region in recent weeks. Fourteen people were killed in a suicide bombing at a security checkpost in Bajaur late last month.

Backed by fighter jets and helicopter gunships, Pakistani security forces helped by members of a militia from the area launched a new push to clear parts of Bajaur on January 27.

The military says it is now in control of the strategic Damadola area, about 12 kilometers north of Bajaur's main town of Khar.

Damadola is an important militant stronghold and was the first Pakistani area to be attacked by pilotless U.S. drones.

Intensified Drone Strikes

In January 2006, CIA-operated drones fired missiles into a house in Damadola in the belief that Al-Qaeda No. 2, Ayman al Zawahri, was there. At least 18 villagers were killed.

The United States has intensified drone strikes in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt, known as a hub for Islamist militants from various parts of the world, since September 2008, killing hundreds of people, including many Pakistani and foreign militants.

The fighting in Bajaur follows bigger offensives over the past 10 months in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, and the South Waziristan Pakistani Taliban stronghold.

The United States has praised Pakistani action against militants attacking the Pakistani state, but wants its ally to extend its fighting to Afghan Taliban based in lawless border enclaves who attack Western troops in Afghanistan.

But the head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, has played down the possibility of any new, large-scale Pakistani offensive against those insurgent groups in the immediate future.

Petraeus told Reuters in an interview last week Pakistan's military was stretched thin trying to consolidate gains from offensives in the past year against Pakistani Taliban.

The paramilitary Frontier Corps said a number of militant hideouts had been destroyed in the Bajaur fighting.

"Terrorists were using this area as a base for their terrorist activities," the paramilitary force said late on February 6, adding that 60 militants and seven soldiers were killed in the fighting.

There was no independent confirmation of the casualties.