updated 10/9/2007 8:07:01 AM ET 2007-10-09T12:07:01

Four days of fierce fighting between Islamic militants and security forces near the Afghan border has killed as many as 250 people in some of the deadliest clashes on Pakistani soil since it threw its support behind the U.S.-led war against terrorism in 2001, the army said Tuesday.

Airstrikes hit Epi village bazaar in North Waziristan tribal region on Tuesday afternoon, and more than 50 militants and civilians were killed and scores more were wounded, said resident Noor Hassan. "The bombing destroyed many shops and homes," Hassan said by telephone. "We are leaving."

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said that military aircraft struck "one or two places" near the town of Mir Ali and there were unconfirmed reports that about 50 militants were killed.

Soldiers' bodies recovered
The bodies of dozens of soldiers, many with their throats slit, have been recovered from deserted areas of North Waziristan, residents fleeing the clashes said. There were also reports of villagers killed in artillery and jet fighter strikes on militant targets.

The fighting in North Waziristan comes as Gen. Pervez Musharraf tries to secure another term as president, vowing to shore up Pakistan’s troubled effort against Islamic extremism.

But his troops are suffering mounting losses as they try to reassert authority in a swath of mountainous territory where warlords supportive of the Taliban and al-Qaida have seized control.

Battles in North Waziristan have killed 150 fighters and 45 soldiers since Saturday, an army statement said. About 12 to 15 troops are missing, it added. Another 50 militants and 20 soldiers had been wounded.

Security forces have rejected a cease-fire proposed by the militants and will “continue punitive action till complete peace is restored” in the area, it said.

Cease-fire deal
Pakistan struck a controversial cease-fire deal with militants in North Waziristan last year. U.S. officials criticized the pact, claiming it gave a safe haven for al-Qaida and provided a rear base for Taliban guerrillas fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan.

In July, Pakistan’s army redeployed troops at key checkpoints in the region, sparking fresh hostilities.

A local intelligence official said the latest fighting started Saturday when a roadside bombing killed one paramilitary soldier and wounded 12 traveling in a truck.

Troops ambush
When five vehicles of army troops went to the bomb site Sunday to retrieve the truck, about 300 militants ambushed them, killing 22 troops and wounding 11. Others were captured alive and could be still held by militants, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

One resident of Isu Khel village said that three soldiers came to his home asking for protection but he refused, fearing he might be targeted by militants. The three soldiers later escaped in a military truck, said the villager, speaking after fleeing to the region’s main town, Miran Shah.

Other residents of Isu Khel and nearby Melagan village said they had spotted bodies of the slain soldiers abandoned in deserted areas and the side of the road linking Mir Ali with Miran Shah.

Many of the victims had their throats slit, they said.

A woman, who fled to Miran Shah, said that she saw eight bodies of army soldiers who had been shot dead. The bodies were covered in dust and one of them was badly mutilated, she said.

The villagers who spoke to The Associated Press requested their names not be printed as they feared reprisals.

The intelligence official said Monday that a dozen civilians had died when a shell struck their home in Mir Ali. It was unclear who fired the shell. State-run Pakistan Television on Monday reported eight civilian deaths in mortar fire but did not say where in North Waziristan it happened.

Arshad said the security forces avoid collateral damage but conceded that some houses had been targeted that were being used for attacks on security forces.

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