KHAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani tribesmen backed by army helicopter gunships battled Islamist militants in the Bajaur region on the Afghan border on Tuesday, killing several of the militants, a tribal elder said.
Pakistani security forces launched an offensive in the strategically important Bajaur, one of the main sanctuaries for al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan, in August. Up to 1,000 militants have been killed this month, the military said.
In some places, ethnic Pashtun tribesmen have banded together with encouragement from the authorities to oppose the militants, whom the tribes blame for bringing violence to their region.
The latest clash broke out in Mulla Saib Dara village, 20 km (13 miles) east of the region’s main town of Khar, when a militia force of about 6,000 tribesmen tried to set ablaze militants’ houses and hideouts.
“Fighting is going on and to help us, the army sent some gunships which fired at the militants, killing several of them,” tribal elder Malik Younus told Reuters.
He said his men would battle the militants until they were cleared from the region.
“It’s now clear to everybody that we can’t tolerate lawlessness in our land. Everyone has to obey our tribal rules and they can’t make our land a hub of terrorism,” Younus said.
Most members of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtun, whether from Pakistan or Afghanistan, and the conservative, deeply religious tribes that straddle the border have often accepted the militants as defenders of Islam.
But the government has been trying to turn communities against the militants and on Tuesday, government helicopters dropped leaflets in different parts of Bajaur calling for the support, residents said.
But a Taliban spokesman dismissed the significance of the militias.
“There is no revolt against the Taliban,” the spokesman, Maulvi Omar, said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“It’s government propaganda. Nobody dares stand up against the Taliban,” he said.
Omar said the Taliban had killed 15 tribesmen in fighting over the past two days.
The United States has been putting pressure on its ally Pakistan to go after the militants and eliminate their sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the border, such as Bajaur, from where they launch attacks into Afghanistan.
Frustrated by an intensifying Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, U.S. forces have in September carried out six cross-border missile strikes by pilotless drones and a commando raid on the Pakistani side of the border.
But Pakistani security officials said on Monday the tables had turned and militants in Bajaur were now getting weapons and reinforcements from Afghanistan.