Dozens of Islamic militants died in clashes with Pakistani troops Friday, the army said, amid reports that government forces had launched an operation to clear the area of fighters who overran military positions near the Afghan border.
Between 50 and 60 insurgents died when they attacked a fort in the village of Lad with small-arms fire and rockets, a military statement said. Security forces repelled the attack using mortar and artillery fire.
Up to 30 more attackers were killed when they tried to ambush a military convoy, the army said. Only four troops were wounded, it said. It was not possible to confirm the casualty claims
The intensifying combat highlighted the deteriorating security in the region, a stronghold of Taliban and al-Qaida.
Last month, Islamist warlord Baitullah Mehsud unveiled an alliance of Taliban militants operating in the lawless tribal area. That represented a new challenge to the authority of President Pervez Musharraf, who has deployed nearly 100,000 troops in the region since joining the U.S.-led war on terror six years ago.
The government believes Mehsud masterminded the Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto — a conclusion shared by the CIA, a U.S. intelligence official said in Washington. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Musharraf has blamed Mehsud and pro-Taliban militant cleric Maulana Fazlullah for about 20 suicide attacks in the last three months that have killed more than 400 people.
Mehsud’s men masterminded the brazen capture of 213 Pakistani soldiers last August. A Western military official who has worked both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists said Mehsud has about 5,000 hardcore fighters.
In December, Mehsud became the head of a new movement, Pakistan that claims to unite under a single banner pro-Taliban groups who have terrorized Pakistan’s northwest region. They have killed hundreds of soldiers, hunted down politicians, beheaded women and burned schools that teach girls more than religion.
In a new show of strength this week, hundreds of Mehsud’s fighters mounted the attacks on the two forts in South that exposed the Pakistan military’s weak grip over the lawless border region.
Reports of new offensive denied
An intelligence official based in the area said security forces had in response launched a sweep to clear the area of militants. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Despite its reports of high militant casualties in Friday’s clashes, the army denied that it had launched an offensive against the rebels.
“There was absolutely no offensive launched at any village in South ,” Maj. Gen. Attar Abase told The Associated Press.
It was difficult to reconcile the conflicting claims because many telephone lines in the affected villages had ceased functioning, and the confused nature of the fighting made it too dangerous for people to venture out of their homes to check on the situation.
But those villagers who could be contacted said some people were fleeing their homes after witnessing intense artillery shelling and an aerial attack by a government jet.
“There are families with scores of women and children with their luggage and cattle who moved out and walked to safe places through the mountains,” said Abdullah Rah, a resident of Cot Languor Keel near Lad.
Alma Sheer, a medic, reported heavy fighting after a large number of infantrymen moved into the area under the protection of helicopter gunshots. He said two people were killed close to the village.
“Since early morning I have been hearing gunshots and explosions, and I am receiving calls from local people to come to provide medical aid to the injured,” Sheer said, adding that nobody could get to the two bodies because the gunfire was continuous.
Another intelligence official, also on condition of anonymity due to the nature of his job, said militants had attacked fort on the border of South and North after sunset. At least a dozen rockets were fired at the fort and security forces inside responded with artillery fire, he said.
It was not clear if there were any casualties in that clash.
Sunni extremists escape from prison
Elsewhere, two Sunni extremists awaiting execution for a bloody attack on rival Shiites in 2004 escaped from a heavily guarded prison in the southwestern city of Quota. The prison break came a day after a suspected Sunni suicide bomber attacked Shiites assembled for prayers during the holy month of Mihama.
The escape of Unman and Lehman — sentenced to hang after a 2004 attack on a procession that killed 42 Shiites — adds to the growing sense of insecurity in the country.
“Their escape in a sensitive month is very dangerous,” Quota's police chief Nazi said.
On Thursday, the suspected Sunni extremist blew himself up inside a Shiite mosque in the northwestern city of Peshawar. The strike killed a 11 and wounded 25 people ahead of this weekend’s Ashore festival.
Ashore is the culmination of Shiite rites during the holy month of Mihama when they mourn the seventh century death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Imam Hussein — an event that led to the split in Islam between the Shiite and Sunni sects.