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Pakistani Forces Kill 24 Militants In Bajaur

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistani forces killed 24 militants as artillery and jet fighters supported ground troops fighting in the Bajaur tribal on the Afghan border, a paramilitary spokesman has said.

NATO forces have launched Operation Lionheart recently to put pressure along the Afghan side of the border across from Bajaur and squeeze the Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants into areas where they can be attacked more easily.

Pakistani troops launched an offensive in Bajaur last August, and the military says more than 1,500 militants have been killed, while 73 soldiers have also died, though no independent verification of casualties is available.

The latest clashes erupted in parts of Mamond and Nawagai districts of Bajaur overnight.

"Twenty-four militants, including 11 foreign fighters, probably Uzbeks, and a local commander have been killed in exchanges of fire with security forces in the last 24 hours," a spokesman for the paramilitary Frontier Corps said.

Pakistani troops are also battling militants in the northwestern valley of Swat, and there is widespread expectation the next offensive will target the Mohmand tribal region.

Pakistan has been under pressure from the United States to do more to go after Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in ethnic-Pashtun lands.

At the same time, U.S. forces have stepped up missile strikes by pilotless drone aircraft against militant targets on Pakistani territory, angering Islamabad and straining relations between the allies.

Pakistan lodged a protest with the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad on November 20, a day after the latest missile strike killed at least five militants, including a possible Arab Al-Qaeda member.

NATO's spokesman in Kabul, Brigadier General Richard Blanchette, said coordination with Pakistan has been improving and the Pakistani military was routinely helping NATO forces direct fire in retaliation when they come under attack from insurgents in Pakistan.

Operation Lionheart was aimed at coordinating operations with Pakistani forces and creating "cutoff positions" to bottle up the insurgents and attack them, Blanchette said.

"Basically, stop their movement and bring better chances of locating them and using kinetic force," Blanchette said, while declining to give details on an ongoing operation.