Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships and artillery attacked pro-Taliban militants in troubled northern Pakistan, killing up to 40 followers of a rebel cleric, the military and officials said Saturday.
The men were killed Thursday in Kuza Banda, Basham and Shangla, three of the militants' strongholds in Swat district, the army said in a statement. In a separate incident, two soldiers were wounded when their convoy was attacked by hand grenades, the army said.
The latest deaths bring militant casualties in the past several days to 100 in Swat, where troops are battling supporters from Maulana Fazlullah, a cleric who has asked his men to wage holy war against the army.
The army provided no further details. Police in Swat said dozens of militants had also been wounded in Friday's assault on their hideouts in various parts of the district, where militants were still controlling many towns and villages.
"Maulana Fazlullah's men are using light and heavy weapons, and the security forces are also responding by targeting their positions by helicopter gunships and artillery," said a police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the fighting with the media.
The official said some civilians had also died after shells struck their homes, but he provided no further details.
Fazlullah's spokesman Sirajuddin — who goes by one name — confirmed that the military in the past five days had intensified attacks, but he said his forces had suffered only "some" casualties.
"Our mujahideen are still in a strong position, and God willing we will defeat the enemy," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. He accused the army of targeting villages and towns, killing innocent people.
The army has said that it was "exercising restraint" to avoid civilian casualties in Swat, where militants were using the people as a human shield.
Pakistan is a key ally of the United States. The fighting came as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was in the capital to discuss a political crisis over President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's decision to declare emergency rule two weeks ago.
Fighting has raged in Swat since July when government troops were sent there to contain the activities of Fazlullah, whose men have captured several villages, police stations and government building.
Fazlullah is demanding the implementation of Taliban-style Islamic laws.
Fazlullah, who is on the run from authorities, uses an illegal FM radio station to call for support.