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By Alamgir Bitani
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan forces killed 19 militants in an intense clash in South Waziristan on Monday while insurgents aiming to divert the army's attention launched a raid in another northwestern region, officials said.
The army launched the assault against the global militant hub in South Waziristan 10 days ago after the al Qaeda-linked fighters spread fear with a series of deadly bombs and raids including a bloody siege at the army's headquarters.
Fearing more violence, authorities last week ordered schools and colleges across the country closed but many of them re-opened Monday.
Security fears have also unnerved stock market investors and the main index slid 7 percent last week. The market ended 2.44 percent higher at 9,374.50 Monday but dealers said turnover was low as investors were still nervous.
The South Waziristan offensive is seen as a test of nuclear-armed Pakistan's determination to take on the Islamists responsible for attacks against the state.
The United States and other powers embroiled in neighbouring Afghanistan's growing conflict want Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for militants in its lawless northwest.
About 28,000 soldiers were advancing on about 10,000 fighters in their main stronghold area from three directions.
The latest fighting took place when Taliban tried to block soldiers advancing through a village from the southeast towards a major militant base at Sararogha.
"They put up stiff resistance and used all sort of weapons including rocket-propelled grenades and heavy and light machine guns," said an intelligence agency official in the region who declined to be identified.
A military spokesman said forces had managed to secure Gharlai village and nearby ridges after the clash in which 10 militants and six soldiers were killed.
DIVERTING ATTENTION
South Waziristan's rugged land of rocky mountains and patchy forest has been a magnet for militants from around the world in recent years. Foreign fighters including Uzbeks and Arab al Qaeda supporters are fighting alongside the Taliban.
A group of militants launched what police said was a diversionary raid in the early hours of Monday on a security post near the town of Hangu, about 100 km (60 miles) northeast of South Waziristan.
Fifteen militants and one soldier were killed, police said.
"They're trying to help their men," said Fazal Naeem, a police spokesman in Hangu. "Since an operation has been launched against them in Waziristan, they've begun these attacks here to divert attention," he said.
Later, security forces destroyed six hideouts and arrested 15 militants during a search, he said.
Fighter jets later bombed militant positions in the Orakzai
region, just to the north of Hangu, destroying two hideouts, security officials in the region said.
About 150,000 people have fled their homes in South Waziristan, pouring into government-held low-land to the east.
The offensive enjoys broad public support but that could begin to be undermined if the militants intensify their retaliatory strikes in town and cities or if civilians displaced by the fighting are seen to be suffering.
Many residents of South Waziristan have a second home on the low-land while many of the other displaced people are staying with friends and relatives.
About 2 million people fled from fighting in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, after the army went on the offensive April in what had become a Taliban bastion.
Most of the displaced have returned home since the army largely cleared the region of Taliban.
(Writing by Kamran Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Reuters