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Pakistani Aircraft Bomb Militants; U.S. Drones Prowl

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani
KHAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani aircraft have bombed militant strongholds in a northwestern region while U.S. drones prowled the sky over another militant sanctuary on the Afghan border, a military official and residents said.

Pakistani forces launched offensives against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in the northwest in August and the government says hundreds of militants have been killed.

But at the same time, U.S. forces have stepped up strikes on militants on the Pakistani side of the border, angering Islamabad and straining relations between the allies.

Pakistani aircraft bombed three areas of Bajaur on September 16 as ground troops searched for militants from house to house, a military spokesman said.

"They have constructed underground bunkers and along with foreign fighters are putting up stiff resistance. Troops are clearing each and every house in these areas," said military spokesman Major Murad Khan.

Khan had no information about casualties in the fighting, but the military has said 117 have been killed in Bajaur over the past week.

An intelligence official in Bajaur said a helicopter gunship had killed nine militants in an attack on a vehicle east of Khar, the region's main town.

An intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan has put pressure on Pakistan to go after militants operating out of sanctuaries in remote enclaves on its side of the border, such as Bajaur.

Worry about Afghanistan's prospects has also led to stepped-up U.S. strikes on militants in Pakistan.

Drones On Patrol

Pakistan's new government has committed itself to the U.S.-led campaign against militancy even though it is deeply unpopular.

But it objects to crossborder strikes and angrily protested against a bloody helicopter-borne ground assault by U.S. commandos early this month.

Pakistan says U.S. strikes and the civilian casualties they inflict drive people into the arms of the militants.

The Pakistani Army has said the country's territory would be defended at all cost, but Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has said Pakistan aimed to settle the issue with the United States diplomatically.

In talks with British Justice Secretary Jack Straw, Gilani called for an immediate halt to violations of Pakistan's territory, the prime minister's office said.

Pakistan's armed forces were fully capable of handling any situation by themselves, Gilani was quoted as telling Straw.

President Asif Ali Zardari, who is close to the United States, was in Britain where he was due to meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown for talks expected to focus on security.

Zardari was elected president this month to replace staunch U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf, a former army chief who stepped down as president last month under threat of impeachment. Pakistani security officials said on September 15 that firing by Pakistani troops forced two U.S. military helicopters to turn back to Afghanistan after they crossed into Pakistani territory, although the U.S. and Pakistani militaries both denied it.

U.S. operated drones, which can fire missiles, flew over the North Waziristan region on the night of September 15 and on the morning of September 16 but did not fire, residents said.

"We're very scared and couldn't sleep the whole night, but thank God nothing happened," said Gul Maroof Shah, a resident of Hamzoni village, 10 kiloemters west of the town of Miranshah.

In the village of Angor Adda in South Waziristan, where U.S. commandos attacked this month, a Pashtun tribal leader said his followers were determined to stop U.S. incursions.

"They either stop incursions or we'll fight them, not just on the border but in Afghanistan," said the leader, Sangeen Khan.