In a major battlefield success, Islamic militants attacked and occupied a Pakistani military fort on the Afghan border, officials said Wednesday. Seven Pakistani frontier guards died in the assault and 20 were listed as missing.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said 50 attackers died in the surprise attack on Sararogha Fort in South Waziristan on Tuesday night. The casualty figure could not be independently confirmed, and in the past the rebels have dismissed government claims about their losses as heavily inflated.
"About 200 militants charged the fort from four sides" late Tuesday, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. "They broke through the fort's wall with rockets."
Fifteen members of the 42-man Frontier Constabulary garrison reached safety in Jandola, an army base about 22 miles east of the occupied British-era fort. Another 20 were still missing, Abbas said.
The fall of the fort represents the first time rebels have captured a government position since last October, when they seized several police stations and military posts in Swat valley, another volatile region in the country's north. The government has since recaptured the valley.
A 'huge' loss
The outpost is one of several dozen such bases located along South Waziristan's mountainous border with Afghanistan. Government forces based there monitor and patrol the border region, a principal staging area for volunteers and the transportation of weapons crossing into Afghanistan.
The Pakistani army has deployed nearly 100,000 troops with heavy artillery and Cobra helicopter gunships to the border regions to try to block cross-border infiltration by Taliban militants fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. U.S. officials also fear al-Qaida has regrouped in the lawless tribal belt.
Analysts said Wednesday's setback at Sararogha demonstrated that the government of President Pervez Musharraf was failing to contain a growing Islamist insurgency ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18.
"This is a huge loss," said Talat Masood, a retired general and now a political analyst. "The militants are now challenging the army openly. They have become very bold and are consolidating their positions."
Local tribesmen were increasingly joining up with Taliban forces from across the border in Afghanistan, he said.
Spate of attacks
Pakistan has been hit by about 20 suicide attacks in the past three months in which about 400 people perished, including Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and leading opposition politician.
The latest military setback will likely contribute to the impression that the government is failing to contain a growing Islamist insurgency ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18.
In a separate incident in South Waziristan, government forces were said to have shelled suspected militant positions around the town of Makin.
"The bazaar is closed and most of the people have fled," said Mohammed Alam, who runs a call office in Makin.
But Abbas, the army spokesman, denied that artillery had targeted the region, saying it had only been used to provide fire support around Sararogha Fort.