Pakistan Leader Urges Afghan's Karzai to Stop Militant Exodus

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has urged Afghanistan's leader to help stop insurgents escaping a major military offensive near their border, as residents who fled the area anxiously awaited news Tuesday from those left behind.

Sharif asked President Hamid Karzai to seal their border along a mountainous tribal area, where the Pakistani military has deployed troops, tanks and jets in a long-awaited crackdown on the Taliban and other militants.

Fresh air strikes early Tuesday targeted three Taliban strongholds in the town of Mir Ali in the North Waziristan area and killed 25 of the militants, according to official statements, raising the total insurgent death toll to 201.

The figure could not be independently confirmed and some residents who had escaped the area spoke of civilian casualties from aerial bombing before the operation was officially launched, as they awaited a break in the fighting to rescue relatives who remained behind.

Thousands of people have fled across the border into the Gorbaz district of Afghanistan's Khost province, according to local officials there, and are being provided with food and aid.

Others have made their way to the town of Bannu in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, 10 kilometers (six miles) to the east of the border with North Waziristan.

Pakistan's army launched the offensive -- a longstanding demand of the United States -- on Sunday, a week after an attack on Karachi airport killed dozens and marked the end of a troubled peace process.

An exodus of militants from the area had been a concern before the operation, with residents and officials reporting that most Taliban and foreign fighters had fled to the border area.

Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said Sharif had requested Karzai to help stop the flow.

"Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called Hamid Karzai last night to request him for the closure of Afghan border to avoid exit of militants to Afghanistan from Pakistan during the military offensive," she told AFP.

In a separate incident eight people were killed on Tuesday when police clashed with followers of an influential preacher in Lahore, a rare act of political violence in the city that is Sharif's power base.

The clashes involved supporters of cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, who lives in Canada but came to Pakistan last year to lead a major anti-corruption march before elections. The killings could increase political pressure on Sharif's government.

Bannu's main bazaar was packed with tribesmen waiting for their relatives along the single road to the tribal area, which is currently dominated by military convoys.

Laver Khan 50, a dried fruit supplier from Datta Khel village who arrived last week, said he had rented a house for 25 members of his family.

"At least they (authorities) should have given us enough time to vacate our areas," Khan said, telling AFP that dozens of other family members had been trapped and were now waiting for a break in the curfew to escape.

"I haven't contacted them for days, I am worried what is happening there," he added.

Haji Saleem Khan, 60, who arrived from Mir Ali last week, said: "They killed women and children in the air strikes, I myself took out dead bodies from under the rubble.

"We support a real operation against militants but with this type of bombing they are killing many innocent people."

Rents in the town have gone up fivefold, residents reported, while two camps built on the outskirts lie almost unused because of the soaring heat and lack of electricity and running water.

Sharif has said the offensive will usher in peace but militants vowed revenge and warned foreign firms to leave the country.

The army has deployed tanks, ground troops and jets in the area but has encountered relatively little resistance so far, with the majority of alleged militant deaths resulting from air strikes.

Pakistan's army has so far lost eight soldiers, according to officials.

Source: Agence France Presse

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