Combat spreads to new area of Pakistani tribal lands
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistani troops drove off a Taliban attack on a fort and pounded another band of militants holed up in a health center, officials said yesterday as fighting spread to a third area of the tribal belt along the Afghan border.
As many as 49 insurgents were reported killed.
The violence came a week after the threat of impeachment forced longtime US ally Pervez Musharraf to resign as president, triggering a scramble for power that resulted in the collapse of Pakistan's governing coalition.
The party led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto until her assassination in December is now in a position to dominate the government and it is toughening its stance against Islamic extremists as they have become increasingly bold.
The Taliban have claimed responsibility for a wave of suicide bombings, including one outside the country's biggest weapons complex last week that killed at least 67 people, almost all of them civilians.
Security forces have been waging offensives against militants for several weeks in the northern Swat valley and in the Bajur tribal area, considered a launch pad for Taliban operations into Afghanistan and a possible hide-out for Osama bin Laden.
Yesterday, fighting spread to South Waziristan, a tribal region that has experienced a stream of suspected US missile attacks on Al Qaeda hide-outs in recent months.
The military said 75 to 100 militants assaulted the Tiarza Fort around midnight Tuesday, but troops guarding the post and a checkpoint on a nearby bridge "repulsed the attack."
Its statement said 11 militants were killed and up to 20 wounded, but it made no mention of any casualties among the troops. Spokesmen for insurgent groups could not be contacted to discuss the government's assertions.
Aminullah Wazir, a shopkeeper in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, said authorities imposed a curfew in the area yesterday. He said shops were shuttered and the streets deserted. "We heard shelling and gunfire almost all night," Wazir told the Associated Press by telephone.
The fiercest battles in Pakistan's restive northwest have been in Swat and Bajur, where officials say hundreds of militants have been killed by military operations and about 200,000 residents have fled their homes.
In the deadliest attack yesterday, troops rained gunfire and artillery shells on militants sheltering in a health center in Bajur, killing as many as 30 and wounding many more, said a military spokesman, Major Murad Khan.
Police said an additional eight militants were killed and 10 wounded when troops fired on suspect vehicles in two areas of Bajur early yesterday.
Later in the day, militants ambushed a government convoy near Wana.
Khan said there were several casualties, without giving details. But an intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, said two paramilitary troopers were killed and several others were missing.
Pakistan's five-month-old government initially sought to calm militant violence by holding peace talks. But the initiatives have borne little fruit, and US officials have been pressing for tougher action against insurgent groups they blame for rising violence across the border in Afghanistan.