Fighting spread in Pakistan’s volatile borderlands on Friday as the military pounded hideouts of Taliban militants who had hijacked ammunition supply trucks, killing up to 30 suspected rebels, the army said.
Two paramilitary troops were killed and 10 wounded in the clashes around Dara Adam Khel, a town on a key strategic route linking Pakistan’s northwestern frontier with the rest of the country.
While the Taliban number relatively few in the town, their ability to intercept a military supply convoy has worrying implications. The route connects Peshawar — the army’s regional headquarters just 25 miles away — with the battlefields of Waziristan, a lawless region regarded as a stronghold for Taliban and al-Qaida.
In the past two weeks, militants have increased attacks on Pakistani security forces in the region. Hundreds of fighters have launched assaults on remote military forts, drawing comparisons with Taliban tactics against NATO forces in southern Afghanistan.
President Pervez Musharraf, who is touring Europe and trying to firm up his shaky standing after months of escalating violence and political turmoil at home, has dismissed the rebel offensive as mere “pinpricks” against its 100,000 troops in the tribal regions.
He also dismissed Friday a U.S. offer to send a small number of American combat troops to Pakistan to help fight the insurgency.
The military claims 34 soldiers and 255 militants have died since Jan. 14, mostly in South Waziristan, where it has deployed infantry, aircraft and tanks in a drive to clear the lawless, mountainous area of insurgents.
Taliban disputes casualty count
The casualty figures, difficult to verify independently in an insecure and largely inaccessible region, have been disputed by the militants.
Maulvi Umer, a spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban, a militant coalition led by Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, dismissed the latest claim of 30 militant dead in Dara Adam Khel, saying only a few of its fighters were wounded. He said six soldiers were killed.
The fighting broke out after militants captured four trucks carrying supplies and ammunition for the paramilitary Frontier Corps and refused to return them, said Arif Khan, a local government official.
Umer justified the hijacking on the grounds that the weapons were going to be used against Taliban forces.
Local pro-Taliban Afridi tribesmen have gained influence in the area in recent months after clamping down on a notorious car-snatching and kidnapping gang. They have since tried to enforce an extreme form of Islamic law, closing video shops and threatening schools that teach girls.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Bush administration was willing to send a small number of U.S. combat troops to Pakistan to help fight the insurgency if Pakistani authorities ask for such help.
But Musharraf on Friday reiterated that Pakistan opposes any foreign forces on its soil and said “the man in the street will not allow this — he will come out and agitate.”