By Jibran Ahmed & Saud Mehsud
PESHAWAR/DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - At least 19 Islamist militants and seven Pakistani soldiers were killed in a fierce gun battle early on Monday near Dattakhel, a town close to the Afghan border, military officials and militants said.
According to security officials, seven Pakistani soldiers were killed when one of the insurgents blew himself up as they sought to hunt down militants in North Waziristan, an area where clashes are common.
Tribal sources there said the militants attacked a security checkpoint in Dattakhel that led to a heavy fighting.
Sources within the Taliban militant movement, whose fighters often hide out near the frontier with Afghanistan, said only one militant was killed and three were wounded, but the Pakistani military said 19 insurgents died in the clash.
"Nineteen terrorists were killed, including five of their commanders, in an intense exchange of fire with security forces last night in an un-cleared pocket along the North Waziristan- Afghan border," the army said in a statement.
It added that one militant exploded a suicide vest as he was being surrounded, killing seven soldiers. Although militants and security forces clash almost daily in tribal areas, the death toll in Monday's incident was unusually high.
Last June, Pakistan launched a major offensive against militants in North Waziristan, leading to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing villages and towns and seeking shelter away from the fighting.
Pakistani military authorities said recently that they had cleared 80 per cent of tribal areas held by the militants.
The campaign against insurgents hiding in remote areas has been led mainly by Pakistani bombing raids and U.S. drone attacks.
Local sources said that Dattakhel and the nearby Shawal Valley were still under the control of militants, however, and the army has yet to launch a major ground offensive in a region where the terrain is particularly hostile.
(Additional reporting by Hafiz Wazir; Writing by Syed Raza Hassan; Editing by Mike Collett-White)