Major-General Niaz Khattak, the operational commander in Wana, the main town of South Waziristan, 400km southwest of Islamabad, said on Saturday during a trip organised for journalists: "Around 600 to 700 foreign militants are still in the tribal area.

"But the operational places of militants have been reduced to a considerable degree."

Armed fighters have been confronting Pakistani security forces since March. A week ago, Pakistani fighter jets and helicopters pounded a fighters' training camp, killing at least 50 - most of them allegedly foreigners. 

Loyal following

Pakistan says those hiding in the
frontier areas include foreigners

Pakistan says hundreds of foreign fighters, most of them Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs, are hiding in South Waziristan close to the border with Afghanistan. The fighters enjoy a committed following among local tribesmen who are supporting them despite a major crackdown by security forces. 

US military officials believe al-Qaida leader Usama bin Ladin and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, may be hiding somewhere along the rugged Afghan-Pakistan frontier. 

Islamabad says it has killed more than 150 fighters in the last year and arrested many more, losing scores of troops in the process.

Khattak said most of the fighters were from Central Asia, including Uzbekistan and Chechnya, adding they were "highly trained militants".

Two soldiers were wounded on Saturday in a clash with fighters in Karwan Manza, 50km north of Wana, officials said. Witnesses said Pakistani army helicopters fired rockets at suspected fighters in the clash.