updated 1/27/2008 8:58:23 PM ET 2008-01-28T01:58:23

Security forces have gained control of a key road tunnel in a lawless region of northwestern Pakistan after fierce fighting killed 24 militants, the army said.

Insurgents had blocked the Indus Highway, a crucial north-south road, and seized the tunnel through a mountain near the town of Dara Adam Khel in the North West Frontier Province.

The army said security forces resumed control Sunday of the tunnel after "fierce fighting" that left 24 militants dead, while many others retreated leaving their weapons and ammunition behind.

One paramilitary soldier was wounded, the army said in a statement.

Maulvi Muhammad Umar, spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan — an umbrella organization for several militant groups operating in the tribal regions — had said earlier that rebels were in control of the tunnel.

Fierce clashes broke out Friday in Dara Adam Khel after security forces attacked Islamic fighters, prompted by a militant attack on trucks loaded with military supplies, the statement said.

The military said 30 militants and two paramilitary troopers died and 10 were wounded in fighting on Friday.

The fighting forced hundreds of villagers to flee the area for the provincial capital, Peshawar.

Sharp uptick in violence
On Sunday, army helicopters buzzed over the town and artillery shells exploded in the surrounding hills.

Thousands more people fled their homes in South Waziristan on Friday due to similar military operations. The military was hunting for Baitullah Mehsud _ a militant leader who was believed hiding in the area and has been accused of orchestrating the Dec. 27 killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The army statement said security forces exchanged heavy fire with militants at two places in South Waziristan on Sunday. It did not report any casualties.

Pakistan is a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, and it has carried out scores of military operations against militants in North and South Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan.

In the past two weeks, militants have increased attacks on government forces in the region. Hundreds of fighters have launched assaults on remote military forts, drawing comparisons with Taliban tactics against NATO forces in southern Afghanistan.

Separately in Swat, a former tourist area north of Islamabad, militants said they had beheaded a "spy for Pakistan and the United States."

"Anyone spying for Pakistan or America will get the same end," Umar said in a telephone call to The Associated Press.

A police official in Swat confirmed a beheaded man's body was found near Mingora, Swat's main town.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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