KOHAT, PakistanÂ – Pakistani troops, backed by helicopter gunships, are battling pro-Taliban militants to recapture a key road tunnel leading to the volatile tribal belt on the Afghan border, the military said on Sunday.
Militants captured the Japanese-built tunnel on the main road link between Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province, and the tribal belt during fighting near Darra Adam Kheil tribal region on Saturday.
The clashes erupted on Friday after militants seized four trucks carrying ammunition and other supplies for the troops. Around 45 militants and two soldiers have been killed in the clashes.
The military said troops had captured some heights in the nearby areas and were trying to wrest control of the tunnel.
“The militants are still in control of the tunnel and surrounding heights,” military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said.
“The operation is underway to recapture the tunnel and clear the area of militants. Helicopters are also being used in the operation.”
Residents said army helicopter gunships were pounding militants positions in the hills.
Abbas said militants had suffered more casualties during the latest fighting but could not give details.
Violence has spread across Pakistan, mainly in Frontier Province, after an army assault on a militant mosque in the capital Islamabad in July last year. Hundreds of people, including soldiers, have been killed in suicide and bomb attacks since then.
But analysts said fighting in Darra Adam Kheil on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Peshawar, posed a new challenge to President Pervez Musharraf, a staunch ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Troops are already battling militants loyal to a Taliban commander, Baitallah Mehsud, in South Waziristan tribal region, a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban militants.
The government says Mehsud is linked to the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a gun and bomb attack last month.
“Militants’ action in Darra Adam Kheil shows that they want to open new fronts to put pressure on the army and to ease pressure on Baitullah Mehsud,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, a newspaper editor and expert on tribal areas.
Mehsud, who has also been blamed for a string of suicide bomb attacks, ordered his fellow Taliban commanders on Friday to step up attacks on Pakistani security forces, according to a spokesman for the militant commander.
Known as haven for smugglers, the small dusty town of Darra Adam Kheil until recently had been relatively free of the militant violence.
But the militants intensified their activities in the town in recent months with attacks on music shops, and an intelligence agent was killed there last year.
In South Waziristan, the military said troops had launched a mop up operation after driving out militants from several areas.
Around 150 militants and more than 20 government soldiers have been killed in South Waziristan in week-long clashes with Mehsud fighters.