Pakistan army fights militants in northwest hills

KOHAT, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani security forces backed by helicopter gunships have killed 15 Taliban militants and captured 60 in an operation that began mid-week in a troubled northwestern town, the military said on Sunday.

The operation was launched on Wednesday around Hangu town after militants killed 17 soldiers and abducted 49 paramilitary soldiers and government officials just over a week ago.

“The operation is still on. We have successfully cleared the valley and now our troops are fighting militants on the mountains,” spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said, adding five soldiers had also been wounded in the fighting.

He said the operation’s goal was to flush out militants from Hangu district, 40 km (25 miles) west of the garrison town of Kohat, but not to extend it into the neighboring Orakzai tribal region, where most insurgents were believed to have fled.

Residents told Reuters by telephone that the military was using heavy artillery and mortars to hit militants’ position in the Tora Warai area, about 25 km (15 miles) west of Hangu town.

Militants hurled a grenade inside a military cinema in Kohat city on Saturday night, wounding four people, including a 9-year-old boy.

A general deterioration in the security situation across the northwest in recent weeks has coincided with calls by Western allies with troops in neighboring Afghanistan for Pakistan to put the militants under greater military pressure, while also engaging less recalcitrant groups in dialogue.

Authorities have imposed a curfew in and around Hangu.

Violence subsided in Pakistan’s northwest after a new coalition formed following February elections began talks.

But Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud suspended talks last month and the security situation has deteriorated once more.

Authorities blamed Mehsud for a wave of suicide attacks across the country over the past one year, including one that killed two time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose party heads the new coalition. Mehsud has denied involvement.

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