Authorities imposed a curfew in this tribal region’s main town Monday as thousands of people fled a third day of clashes between Pakistani security forces and al-Qaida and Taliban supporters. An official said at least 100 militants may have been killed.
Clerics tried to mediate a cease-fire to the fighting, most of which has been in Miran Shah. Security forces conducted mop-up operations Monday after artillery and helicopter gunships targeted militant strongholds in the town.
More than 100 militants might have died, based on intelligence reports and questioning of injured and arrested fighters, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said. Security forces had yet to regain control of all compounds in Miran Shah, so he could not give an exact toll. Journalists were barred from the town.
The fighting in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions along the Afghan border is the bloodiest in more than two years and marks an escalation in President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s campaign to crack down on al-Qaida and Taliban militants and their local sympathizers.
It also underscored Islamabad’s failure to establish governmental control in the rugged region — a possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri — where fiercely independent Pashtun tribesmen have resisted outside authority and influence for centuries.
Pakistan hits suspected al-Qaida siteThe trigger of the unrest was a Pakistani army strike against a suspected al-Qaida camp in the border village of Saidgi last week that authorities said killed 45 people, including foreign militants. It was launched two days before a visit by President Bush, fueling speculation Pakistan was flexing its military muscle in the border regions to signal its commitment to the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Pro-Taliban tribesmen claimed locals were killed in the assault and, according to officials, ambushed the vehicles of security forces Saturday and opened fire on the main Frontiers Corps base in Miran Shah. The army responded with artillery and fire from helicopter gunships.
Dil Nawaz, 45, a resident of Miran Shah, said he had been stranded with his weeping family in their home for a day as guns boomed around them and bullets ricocheted off the walls. He finally fled on foot with his wife and five children during a lull in the fighting Sunday.
“We saw destruction in the main bazaar. We saw damaged homes. We just kept walking and hours later reached Mir Ali,” he said.
About 10,000 people have fled the violence. Vehicles were not allowed in or out of Miran Shah, so people had to walk 10 miles to a security checkpoint. Many have ended up in Mir Ali, 15 miles west of Miran Shah, where the situation has stabilized after at least 21 people died in violence Saturday.
A full curfew was declared in Miran Shah except for three afternoon hours for residents to buy provisions, said Sikandar Qayyum, a security official for Pakistan’s tribal areas. It would last as long as “the security situation requires.”
Fighting rumbled on Monday. A militant rocket attack on a residential area for government officials in Miran Shah killed one official’s 17-year-old daughter, Qayyum said.
Qayyum confirmed that army helicopter gunships fired on militant positions around Miran Shah on Monday, while militants attacked security checkpoints around Mir Ali and the nearby town of Razmak but caused no casualties.
President defends army
Musharraf on Monday defended the army’s operations, saying hundreds of foreign militants were hiding in North and neighboring South Waziristan.
“They include Uzbeks, Chechens, Middle Easterners, and even some Chinese,” he told reporters. “Foreigners are also present in Miran Shah.”
But opposition lawmaker Imran Khan condemned the government for “the massacre of our citizens in the tribal areas by the use of indiscriminate force.”
Khan was released Sunday from two days of house arrest in Islamabad for trying to organize an anti-U.S. protest during Bush’s visit.