Clashes in Pakistan's Waziristan; 7 killed

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - At least seven people have been killed in clashes with pro-Taliban fighters in a Pakistani tribal region where militants have held captive 240 soldiers since August, security officials said on Tuesday.

Clashes began early on Monday in South Waziristan, a hotbed of support for the Taliban and al Qaeda on the Afghan border, and continued overnight as militants mounted a counterattack on a school where security forces had set up camp.

“Militants launched the attack after offering funeral prayers for comrades killed earlier,” an intelligence official said.

Two paramilitary soldiers and four militants were killed during the fighting in the remote Makeen area, while a villager was killed when a mortar hit a house.

Negotiations with tribal elders to secure release of the soldiers captured in the nearby Ladha area were continuing and media reports on Monday that the men had been freed were incorrect, military officials said on condition of anonymity.

The militants want the army to withdraw and free 15 comrades. They released six captured soldiers earlier this month.

Violence in Waziristan has escalated since a Pakistani government peace deal with militants broke down and the army stormed a radical mosque to quell a Taliban-style movement in the capital, Islamabad, in July.

Several hundred people have been killed in bombings, and gunbattles since. On Sunday, the military said it had killed 10 fighters in the Shawal area of North Waziristan.

Most of the violence is concentrated in the tribal belt along the Afghan border, but suicide bombers have struck in Islamabad and neighbouring Rawalpindi, where the army is headquartered.

The deteriorating security situation has helped fuel scares that President Pervez Musharraf might declare a state of emergency to cling on to power, as he faces mounting opposition to his plans to secure a second five-year term.