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Fierce battle in al Qaeda hunt


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Pakistani paramilitary soldiers man a machinegun at a checkpost in Wana.
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Pakistani forces have killed 24 suspected militants in a fierce gunbattle in the lawless region bordering Afghanistan, as U.S. forces prepare for a spring offensive against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the Afghan side.

Forces also captured 18 suspects in the battle Tuesday at a compound near the town of Wana, but at least eight soldiers were killed and more than two dozen wounded, said Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.

Intelligence sources said most of those killed or captured were foreign fighters, not Pakistanis. The fighting came on the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Pakistan.

Acting on intelligence information, Sultan said the soldiers began a routine search operation in the South Waziristan region -- a culturally conservative tribal area in Pakistan's semi-autonomous northwestern border region.

Pakistan forces exchanged gunfire with "miscreants" and called in tribal elders to negotiate a surrender, but the effort failed.

U.S. and Pakistani officials say they believe hundreds of remnants of the Taliban, Afghanistan's former Muslim rulers, and the al Qaeda terrorist network may be hiding out in the region.

Some also suspect al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington -- may be in the area.

In recent weeks, Pakistan's military and paramilitary have launched a number of sweeps for "suspected foreign terrorists" along the border.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war on terror and survived two attempts on his own life last year.

U.S. offensive

U.S. forces are upping the ante in Afghanistan.

On the other side of the border, the U.S. military is planning a spring offensive, called Operation "Mountain Storm", against remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.

The plan hopes to catch al Qaeda and Taliban members in the middle as the U.S. and Pakistani militaries press in from both sides.

Already U.S. military operations in Afghanistan have been stepped up.

A series of weekend raids in Afghanistan's mountainous border region with Pakistan resulted in the deaths of three anti-coalition fighters, and netted 13 captives, military officials said.

U.S. officials have said that ground troops and aircraft are expected to move into Afghanistan's southeastern border region near Pakistan in the next few weeks.

As the weather warms and the snow melts, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are becoming more active with U.S. troops reporting an increase in firefights and rocket attacks on their bases.

More fighters are also expected to move across the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan where U.S. forces plan to be waiting for them.

Military officials said they don't expected U.S. forces in Afghanistan will increase beyond the current level of 11,000.

CNN Islamabad Bureau Chief Ash-har Quraishi and Producer Syed Mohsin Naqvi contributed to this report.


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