Pakistan repels militant attack
16 insurgents are killed near Afghan border
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Scores of militants attacked a Pakistani security post near the Afghan border yesterday, triggering a battle that left 18 combatants dead and cast doubt on assertions by Pakistan's army that it has regained control of a critical region.
A separate clash in the Swat Valley put more pressure on a disputed peace deal there, while a Taliban commander suspected in attacks on trucks carrying supplies to NATO and US troops in Afghanistan surrendered to authorities, officials said.
Under the peace deal, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in Swat and nearby areas to halt two years of bloody fighting. The controversial pact has been likened by the United States to surrender. It heralded a militant push into a neighboring district within 60 miles of Islamabad.
In an interview with CNN, set to air today, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the militants' expanding reach in the northwest of Pakistan posed an "existential threat to the democratic government in Pakistan."
Gates said the United States was willing to provide all the training and equipment Pakistan's military needed to help combat the growing threat.
"There has been reluctance on their part up to now. They don't like the idea of a significant American military footprint inside Pakistan. I understand that . . . but we are willing to do pretty much whatever we can to help the Pakistanis in this situation," he said in the interview. CNN released the transcript to the Associated Press.
The United States has bankrolled Pakistan's government and army with billions of dollars since Pakistan abandoned its support of the former hard-line Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Pakistan has launched numerous military operations along the frontier since then, but security has only deteriorated.
Earlier this year, Pakistani generals said they dismantled Taliban ministates in the northwestern tribal regions of Mohmand and Bajur, from where insurgents were attacking US troops on the other side.
Yet militants still control much of the frontier region, which US officials view as the likely hiding place of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and have made alarming advances toward several major cities.
According to the army, about 100 insurgents took part in yesterday's attack on the Spinal Tangi security post in Mohmand.
"Sixteen militants were killed in retaliatory fire. Two security forces personnel embraced shahadat [martyrdom]," a military statement said.
Syed Ahmad Jan, a senior administrator for Mohmand, said three more troops were wounded.
Few reporters work in the remote border zone because of poor security, making it hard to verify the army's account. A Taliban spokesman in the region could not be reached for comment.
Pakistani counterinsurgency efforts are currently focused on Buner, a hilly farming district near the Indus River that was infiltrated last month by hundreds of Taliban militants.
The advance triggered alarm in Pakistan and the West for the stability of the nuclear-armed country.
Pakistan's army says it has killed more than 100 militants and lost several soldiers since fighting began Tuesday. Militants have taken dozens more security personnel prisoner. Hundreds of civilians have fled the area.
Yesterday, the army said that it was clearing bombs laid along one of two main roads it has secured and that it would soon let civilians travel to Buner's main town, Daggar.
In better news for the government, a Taliban commander in the Khyber region, just west of Peshawar, surrendered yesterday after authorities put pressure on his tribe, said Bakhtiar Khan, a local official.
He said Iftikhar Khan Afridi was aligned with Baitullah Mehsud, the top Pakistani Taliban commander whom US officials accuse of assisting insurgents in Afghanistan.
"We think his arrest will help reduce the attacks on the NATO supplies," the official said.