Source AP ©

Pakistani forces rescue 3 kidnapped soldiers after fighting with militants

Security forces on Wednesday raided a militant hide-out and fought a fierce gunbattle in Pakistan's troubled northwest to try to free seven soldiers taken prisoner a day earlier, officials said. One captive soldier was killed, three rescued, and the militants escaped with the remaining three.

The seven soldiers were seized by suspected militants on Tuesday in the North West Frontier Province as they rode in two vehicles.

Dozens of troops launched an attack on a house in Bannu town before dawn Wednesday, and rescued three of the captive soldiers after a "fierce shootout," said Mohammed Khan, a local police official.

One of the captive soldiers died in the shootout, and the kidnappers managed to flee with the others, he said.

"Efforts are under way to trace and rescue the remaining three soldiers," Khan said, without providing further details.

The kidnappings came after Pakistani forces backed by helicopter gunships on Tuesday repelled a guerrilla raid on a military checkpoint near Miran Shah, a nearby town in the North Waziristan tribal district, killing 18 militants, said a local security official.

Also Tuesday, 2,000 women and hundreds of men from a hard-line Islamic group rallied in the capital in support of followers of Islamabad's Red Mosque, where at least 102 people died in a military raid last month. Protesters declared that the "blood of martyrs" will not be wasted.

Anger among hard-liners against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has surged since the raid three weeks ago to oust radical clerics and militants from the pro-Taliban mosque. Militants have since stepped up attacks, particularly at the northwestern frontier.

The assault Tuesday by between 30 and 40 fighters on the checkpoint near Miran Shah, was among the most brazen yet. Taliban and al-Qaida militants are active in this lawless tribal region, near the Afghan border.

The deteriorating security in Pakistan comes as Musharraf faces increasing pressure from Washington that the tribal regions, particularly Waziristan, have become a haven for al-Qaida - which Pakistan denies.

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