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Pakistani Troops Kill 16 Militants Near Afghan Border

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani security forces, backed by helicopter gunships and artillery, have battled Al-Qaeda-linked militants near the Afghan border, killing 16 and wounding 25, a government official said.

Pakistani forces have intensified offensives in the northwestern regions of Bajaur and Swat in recent days. According to security officials, more than 150 militants have been killed in the fighting.

Pakistan insists it will handle the security threat within its borders and is seeking to deter the United States from mounting cross border commando raids on Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets.

Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani last week warned the United States against violating Pakistan's borders, though "The New York Times" reported that President George W. Bush had given permission for U.S. raids, as the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan showed no sign of abating.

The latest clashes broke out early on September 14 in the villages of Loi Sam, Rashakai, and Tang Khata in the Bajaur tribal region.

"Our forces targeted militants' positions with artillery fire and gunships and inflicted big losses on them," a senior government official in the region, Iqbal Khattak, told Reuters.

He said 16 militants had been killed, but the fighting was still going on late in the afternoon.

Military spokesman Major Murad Khan said security forces captured the villages of Khazana and Nasirabad, two militant strongholds, during the offensive.

The army spokesman said there had been casualties on both sides, but said it was too early to give numbers.

An intelligence official in the region told Reuters that troops were trying to destroy underground tunnels used by the militants, who included foreign fighters.

Pakistan's new civilian-led government has committed itself to fighting militancy, as former army chief and President Pervez Musharraf had done, though siding with the United States is deeply unpopular.

A helicopter-borne ground assault by U.S. commandos earlier this month, in which 20 people, including women and children were killed, sparked outrage in Pakistan.

On September 13, Pakistani fighter jets began reconnaissance flights over villages near the Afghan border where there have been a spate of U.S. drone-aircraft missile strikes.

Islamabad says the U.S. territorial violations and resulting civilian casualties hardened support for the militants among the ethnic-Pashtun tribes of the region.