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Pakistan claims rout of militants

Pakistan's army claimed Monday to have routed Taliban militants in a stronghold near the Afghan border but turned up no sign of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri.

The government ordered a halt to the operation to allow some of the 300,000 families who fled airstrikes and combat in the Bajur region to return home for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

However, officials reported that troops fired on militants seen moving toward a security post late Monday, and that stray mortar shells killed at least two civilians.

U.S. officials recently stepped up calls for Pakistan to put more pressure on militants using bases in its remote tribal areas to mount cross-border attacks also on NATO and government troops in Afghanistan.

Some analysts have warned that the pause in the weeks-long Bajur operation would only allow the militants to regroup.

Pakistani officials said Monday, however, that their forces had killed some 560 Pakistani and foreign fighters and thwarted a push to make Bajur into a militant fortress.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said about 20 members of the security forces died and 30 were missing.

“In our view, the back has been broken,” Pakistani Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told The Associated Press. “Main leaders are on the run and the people of the area are now openly defying whatever the militants had achieved there.”

Officials including former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf have mentioned Bajur as a possible hiding place for bin Laden or al-Zawahri.

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