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By Ibrahim Shinwari
LANDIKOTAL, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani soldiers killed 18 militants on Tuesday in a campaign to break a network orchestrating attacks on Western forces' supplies to Afghanistan and carrying out bombings, a security official said.
Any heavy casualties inflicted on militants in the Khyber region could ease concerns in Washington, which wants Pakistan to root out fighters along the border, seen as a global hub for militants, to help it defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Militants have been trying to choke off the supplies, forcing the United States and other countries with troops in landlocked Afghanistan to look for alternative routes.
"We have secured one of their strongholds and recovered a large cache of arms and ammunition. In the fighting, 18 militants were killed while six were arrested," said Frontier Corps paramilitary force spokesman Major Fazal-ur-Rehman.
Political tensions in Pakistan could distract the government from its crackdown against militants behind recent bomb attacks that have killed hundreds of people.
Pakistan's government published on Saturday a list of people, including four cabinet ministers, who could face prosecution over corruption after a controversial amnesty lapses this week.
Embattled President Asif Ali Zardari, also on the list, cannot be prosecuted because of presidential immunity.
However, the politically charged cases involving about 8,000 people, many from his party, could weaken him further and spark a new political crisis.
Violence over recent months has dampened trade in Pakistani stocks, although dealers say investors are getting used to the bloodshed.
The benchmark 100-share index ended 0.13 percent, or 11.74 points, higher at 9,233.70 on low turnover of 52.15 million shares on Tuesday.
The U.S. military sends a large proportion of its supplies for the Afghan war through or over its regional ally Pakistan.
Pakistani security forces went on the offensive in the Khyber region in September, forcing militants to forge a pact with the Pakistani Taliban in a bid to put up tough resistance.
Western military supply lines have also been attacked along a route that leads to Afghanistan from Pakistan's Baluchistan province, where separatists have been waging a low-level insurgency for decades.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani invited ethnic Baluch leaders for talks on Tuesday in an effort to ease the conflict in their gas and mineral-rich province, which also borders Iran.
Gilani's attempt to end grievances in the province comes as the government wants to focus on the growing Taliban insurgency in the volatile northwest.
U.S. assertions that Afghan Taliban leaders are based in the provincial capital Quetta have brought fear that the United States could expand attacks by pilotless drone aircraft into Baluchistan.
Apart from the attacks on supply routes, militants have also been involved in a spate of deadly suicide bombings in Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province, security officials say.
Pakistani troops face pressure on several fronts.
The army went on the offensive in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border on October 17, aiming to root out militants who stepped up their war against security forces in 2007.
According to the military, about 600 militants have been killed in the South Waziristan assault, while 70 soldiers have been killed. There has been no independent verification.
(Writing by Kamran Haider; Editing by Michael Georgy and Paul Tait)