ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani security forces have killed 25 Islamist militants in fighting on the Afghan border while security was stepped up at airports across the country on Thursday after a telephone threat, officials said.
Security has deteriorated alarmingly in Pakistan over recent months, with the military attacking al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in the northwest while the militants have responded with a string of bomb attacks.
In the latest fighting, security forces and militants exchanged rocket and mortar fire during a fierce exchange in Bajaur’s Tang Khata area on Wednesday, the Frontier Corps paramilitary force said.
Troops “routed” the militants, killing 25 of them and wounding many, the force said in a statement. It gave no information about casualties on the government side.
Pakistan is under intense U.S. pressure to eliminate militant sanctuaries in lawless ethnic Pashtun regions on its side of the border with Afghanistan. Bajaur is one of the main sanctuaries for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan.
Militants use the strongholds to attack into Afghanistan, where Western forces are grappling with a growing Taliban insurgency and fears are growing for the country’s prospects.
Pakistani forces launched an offensive in Bajaur in August and the government says more than 700 militants have been killed.
But militants have struck back with bomb attacks.
A previously unknown group that claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad last Saturday that killed 54 people said the Pakistani government should stop cooperating with the United States.
Security was stepped up at airports across the country after a telephone threat of a bomb attack at Islamabad airport, aviation officials on Thursday.
Only people with tickets and no vehicles were allowed into the airport. There were delays to some flights, passengers said.
“We’ve searched the airport and found nothing but we are still in a state of red alert,” said deputy airport manager Ghaffar Mughal.
The government has vowed to root out terrorism while offering talks with militants who renounce violence.
Deteriorating security has unnerved investors already gloomy about a sharp downturn in the economy.
The rupee has lost more than 20 percent against the dollar this year and is trading around all-time lows.
The main stock index has lost about 35 percent this year and had been propped up by a floor since last month. Dealers said it prevented a fall after the Marriott bombing.
The country has been on edge since the bombing of the Marriott, one of two top hotels in the heart of the capital, with reports of more suicide bombers compounding fears.
The U. S. embassy has temporarily suspended visa and consular services and barred staff from major hotels, an embassy spokesman said. A company that handles British visa applications had also suspended its services, a British spokeswoman said.
The government, led by the party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has criticized the security agencies for not stopping the violence.
“Stern action by the law enforcing agencies must be taken as their intelligence agencies are failing miserably,” the cabinet said in a statement late on Wednesday.
Differences with the United States over how to tackle the militants have strained relations between the allies.
The United States has stepped up attacks on militants in Pakistan with six missile strikes by pilotless drones and one by ground forces this month. But Pakistan says the attacks are a violation of its sovereignty.