Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter jets killed 15 suspected militants Monday as security forces advanced on Taliban strongholds near the Afghan border, an official said.
The deaths — along with 22 wounded — are the latest toll from a bloody six-week military offensive that has reportedly killed hundreds in the Bajur tribal region. Some 32 people, including three women, died Sunday, senior government official Iqbal Khattak added.
U.S. officials say the Taliban and other militant groups have been using Bajur as a base from which to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. It has also been named as a possible hide-out of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The Pakistani operation comes amid tension with the United States over whether the Muslim nation is doing enough to combat insurgents on its territory and whether the United States should pursue unilateral strikes there.
Khattak said Pakistani forces had used helicopter gunships, fighter jets and heavy artillery to attack suspected militant positions in various areas in Bajur.
In a statement late Sunday, the military said ground forces were advancing toward Loi Sam, a key areas for the militants. Khattak said security were also trying to secure Nawagai, a strategic town on a main road.
The casualty figures and details of the operation are difficult to confirm independently because of the region's remote and dangerous nature.
The government said late last month that it would cease military operations in Bajur for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but reserved the right to retaliate against insurgent activities.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said factors including persistent militant mortar attacks and threats to pro-government tribes prompted the military to restart its operation.
Abbas said the issue "has to be resolved once and for all."
"It may take a long time. We cannot just hand over this area to the Taliban."
A series of suspected U.S. missile strikes and an American-led ground assault in Pakistani territory in the northwest in recent days have prompted official protests from Pakistan's military and government.
Although Pakistan has vowed to defend its territorial integrity and publicly denounced U.S. incursions, top officials have indicated they would prefer to resolve the conflict through diplomatic means.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is expected to discuss the incursions with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown this week.
Did Pakistani fire turn back U.S. choppers?
On Monday, Pakistani security officials said firing by Pakistani troops forced U.S. military helicopters to turn back to Afghanistan after they crossed into Pakistani territory.
The incident took place near Angor Adda, a village in the tribal region of South Waziristan where U.S. commandos in helicopters raided a suspected al-Qaida and Taliban camp earlier this month.
"The U.S. choppers came into Pakistan by just 100 to 150 meters at Angor Adda. Even then our troops did not spare them, opened fire on them and they turned away," one security official told Reuters.
The United States and Pakistani military both denied that account, but Angor Adda villagers and officials supported it.
"The U.S. choppers were there at the border, but they did not violate our airspace," Pakistani military spokesman Maj. Murad Khan said.
"We confirm that there was a firing incident at the time when the helicopters were there, but our forces were not involved," he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. military at Bagram Airbase, north of Kabul, said its forces had not reported any such incident.
"The unit in the area belongs to the (U.S.-led) coalition. They are not reporting any such incident," the U.S. military spokesman said.
Fleeing the fighting
The Bajur operation in August forced as many as 500,000 people to flee to neighboring regions, but the announcement of a Ramadan halt in fighting prompted many to return.
Now, people are again fleeing.
One resident, Abdul Malik, was heading Sunday to the Dir area north of Bajur with his wife and three children. He said they were trying to return to the relief camp they'd vacated after hearing of the Ramadan suspension.
"This is more fierce fighting than before, and we don't know who is killing whom, as no big figure has been killed as yet, only innocent civilians," Malik said.