updated 8/27/2008 2:51:17 PM ET 2008-08-27T18:51:17

Security forces repelled a massive Taliban attack on a military fort in northwestern Pakistan and pounded militants cowering in a health center, officials said Wednesday, as fighting near the Afghan border spread to a third front.

As many as 49 insurgents died, officials claimed.

The violence came a week after U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign as president, triggering a scramble for power that resulted in the collapse of the country's ruling coalition this week.

The party of slain former leader Benazir Bhutto, now in a position to dominate the government, is toughening its stance against extremists at a time when they are becoming increasingly bold.

The Taliban have claimed responsibility for a wave of suicide bombings, including one on the largest and most sensitive military installations last week that left at least 67 people dead, almost all civilians.

Security forces have been engaging in a weekslong offensive against Islamic extremists in the northern Swat valley and in Bajur, considered a launchpad for Taliban operations into neighboring Afghanistan and a possible hideaway for Osama bin Laden.

Fighting spreads
By Wednesday, fighting had spread to South Waziristan — a tribal region that has been targeted in a stream of suspected U.S. missile attacks on al-Qaida hideouts in recent months.

The military said between 75 and 100 militants assailed their Tiarza Fort at about midnight Tuesday.

Troops guarding the fort and a checkpoint on a nearby bridge "responded effectively and repulsed the attack," a military statement said, adding that 11 militants died and up to 20 were wounded.

It made no mention of any casualties among its troops and insurgents could not be reached to confirm any of the new death tolls.

Aminullah Wazir, a shopkeeper in Wana, the region's main town, said authorities imposed a curfew in the area Wednesday. He said shops were shuttered and the streets deserted.

"We heard shelling and gunfire almost all night," Wazir told The Associated Press by telephone.

The fiercest battles have been in Swat and Bajur, where officials say hundreds of militants have died in the military operation and that 200,000 residents have been forced flee their homes.

In the deadliest incident on Wednesday, troops rained fire from guns and artillery on militants holed up in a health center in Bajur, killing as many as 30 and wounding many more, said military spokesman Maj. Murad Khan.

Security forces assessed the toll with the help of intercepted radio traffic among the insurgents, he said.

Police said another eight militants died and 10 were wounded when government forces fired on suspect vehicles in two areas of Bajur early Wednesday.

Later in the day, militants ambushed a convoy of security forces near Wana. Khan said there were several casualties, but declined to give details, saying officials were still collating reports.
An intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said two paramilitary soldiers were killed and several others were missing after the attack and the gunbattle that followed.

Pakistan's 5-month-old government initially dabbled in peace talks with militants. But the initiatives have borne little fruit, and U.S. officials have been pressing for stiffer action against insurgents they blame for soaring violence in Afghanistan.

U.S. diplomat fired on
In addition to a string of suicide bombings in the last week, gunmen fired at the car of a senior U.S. diplomat in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Tuesday and a bomb killed seven at a roadside restaurant near Islamabad.

Pakistanis and the country's Western backers worry that the political turmoil since Musharraf's ouster after nine years in power could distract efforts to deal with the many challenges ahead, including shoring up the flagging economy.

On Wednesday, the Karachi stock exchange's benchmark 100-share index fell another 3 percent. The index has plummeted by more than 40 percent since April and stands at its lowest level in more than two years.

Lawmakers hold elections for a new president on Sept. 6. Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former leader Benazir Bhutto, is widely expected to win.

Critics have questioned Zardari's suitability for the role in the light of a Financial Times report that his lawyers told a London court he had suffered from serious mental problems.

Zardari's party say he suffered great stress during his long confinement in Pakistani jails on corruption charges, but that he is now fully fit to lead the country.

A spokesman for the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which left the coalition on Monday, said that a "patient" shouldn't be allowed to contest the election.

"Similarly, if a sitting president suffers from such mental and psychological problems, constitutionally he cannot retain his office," Sadiqul Farooq said.

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

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