ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani security forces killed 30 militants loyal to al Qaeda and Taliban in the latest fighting in a strategically important tribal region on the Afghan border, officials said on Saturday.
Three soldiers, including two army officers, were also killed in the fighting, which began Friday, in Bajaur region described by the military officials as a “center of gravity” for the militants.
The security forces backed by helicopter gunships pounded positions of the militants in and around militant strongholds in Loi Sam and Rashakai areas.
Military spokesman Major Murad Khan said 25 militants were killed in fighting on Friday. A military official said five more insurgents were killed on Saturday.
“The security forces have cleared the areas around west and north of Rashkai and Loi Sam areas,” Khan said.
“The security forces are successfully making advances today,” he added.
Pakistani security forces launched the offensive in Bajaur in August and a senior military official on Friday estimated 65 percent of the militant problem would be eliminated if guerrillas were defeated in Bajaur.
Major-General Tariq Khan, head of the paramilitary Frontier Corps force, said up to 1,000 militants, including their five senior commanders, and 62 soldiers had been killed in the fighting in the region.
Bajaur is the smallest of Pakistan’s seven so-called tribal agencies, semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun regions along the Afghan border, with a population of just one million people.
But it provides access to surrounding Pakistani regions as well as the eastern Afghan province of Kunar.
Pakistani intelligence officers have said al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al Zawahri was believed to have visited Bajaur in recent years.
In January 2006, a CIA-operated pilotless drone aircraft fired missiles at a house in Bajaur in the belief Zawahri was visiting there. At least 18 villagers were killed.
But the paramilitary force chief said he could not be sure if any top al Qaeda figures were presently in Bajaur.
U.S. officials say Taliban and al Qaeda-linked fighters, financed by drug money, use the tribal regions as a springboard for attacks inside Afghanistan, where Western forces are struggling to stem a growing insurgency.
Pakistan has been under mounting pressure from the United States to eliminate militant sanctuaries in its northwest.
Pakistan itself is facing mounting militant violence. Last weekend, at least 54 people were killed in a suicide truck bombing on the Marriott Hotel, Islamabad. The bombing was the worst attack to hit Pakistani capital since Pakistan joined U.S.-led war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001.
While Washington has praised Pakistani military offensive in Bajaur, the U.S. forces have stepped up cross-border strikes from Afghanistan on militant targets on the Pakistani territory in recent weeks, ratcheting up diplomatic tension between the two allies fighting al Qaeda and Taliban.
U.S.-led forces have carried out six cross-border missile strikes by drones against militants in Pakistan and a ground attack by U.S. commandos on a village in South Waziristan, another hotbed of support for the militants.