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47 Killed as Insurgents Take Key Fort in NW Pakistan

Over a century old, Sararogha Fort is one of the few symbols of government authority in South Waziristan, an area where Pakistan has never succeeded in exerting much control.

The region is a haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters and has been identified by Western intelligence officials as an international headquarters for Islamic extremist groups.

The Pakistani government has struggled to find a strategy to counter the threat -- alternately combating it with military force and signing peace deals. Crucial truces in both North and South Waziristan collapsed last summer, spurring a surge in attacks that have claimed hundreds of lives throughout the country.

A Western military official with knowledge of extremist groups on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border estimated this week that Mehsud, who has allied himself with al-Qaeda, has about 5,000 hard-core fighters at his disposal.

But the official also said Mehsud has purposely exaggerated his own influence. "A lot more is attributed to him than I think he's capable of," the official said.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has blamed Bhutto's assassination on Mehsud, and the government has produced an audio recording that it says implicates him. But Bhutto's supporters have said they believe that explanation is intended to cover for others, including current and former government officials.

Pakistan has repeatedly tried and failed to kill Mehsud. It has also attempted to turn rival tribal commanders in the area against him, with limited success.

Wednesday's attack represented yet another setback for the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that is supposed to be on the front lines of Pakistan's counterinsurgency campaign but has taken heavy losses and proved generally overmatched.

The United States has made beefing up the Frontier Corps a priority and is investing in a new program to train and equip the force.

Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters in Florida on Wednesday that Pakistan appeared more welcoming of U.S. counterinsurgency training and advice than it had been in the past.

"My sense is, there is an increased willingness to address these problems," he said. "And we're going to try to help them."

Ali reported from Peshawar.

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