/ 12 September 2007

Dozens of insurgents killed by Pakistan army

Pakistani helicopter gunships and artillery pounded pro-Taliban militant hide-outs in a tribal region near the Afghan border, killing up to 40 insurgents, the army said on Wednesday.

Hours earlier, dozens of Islamist fighters attacked a check post and kidnapped 12 troops a few kilometres away in the country’s north-west, as rebels threatened to start killing another 200 being held in the area.

The incidents came as a visiting United States official reiterated Washington’s full backing for military ruler President Pervez Musharraf as a key ally in the ”war on terror” amid political turmoil rocking the country.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte played down indications that the US could launch unilateral strikes against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

”If we intend to carry out whatever activities we do in the tribal areas there will be complete respect for the sovereignty of Pakistan,” Negroponte told a press conference in Islamabad.

Pakistani forces on Tuesday night launched the latest in a string of military operations on the border of the tribal regions of North and South Waziristan, which the US says is al-Qaeda’s new worldwide base.

”The miscreants were occupying mountaintops to launch several attacks on troops. We used artillery and Cobra gunship helicopters to dislodge them,” top Pakistani military spokesperson Major General Waheed Arshad told AFP.

”The ground troops have started reaching the area for mopping up operations once the firing ends,” Arshad said, adding that the clash was ongoing.

Pakistani forces said they had killed a top pro-Taliban militant commander, Ismatullah Khan, last week in the same region along with five other militants.

Pakistan has been rocked by violence since troops stormed the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad in July, with militants increasingly turning to kidnappings to press their demands for troops to stop operations against them.

In a pre-dawn raid on Wednesday, rebels armed with rocket launchers surrounded a security post on the outskirts of the troubled city of Bannu, which borders North Waziristan, officials said.

They wounded a policeman and a soldier before whisking away 12 paramilitary troops, local security chief Amir Badshah said, adding: ”They were local Taliban.”

Separately a militant spokesperson warned that they would start killing more than 200 soldiers who surrendered without firing a shot in South Waziristan nearly two weeks ago.

”We will start killing them in batches of three soldiers if the military operations do not stop,” spokesperson Zulfiqar Mehsud said.

Militants abducted another 15 soldiers in August in South Waziristan. One of the troops was beheaded by a group of teenage militants in a killing recorded on video, and the rest were freed later.

Musharraf also faces a political crisis ahead of his widely opposed attempt to be re-elected for another five-year term as president in uniform in coming weeks.

In a sign of his growing unpopularity, a poll released on Wednesday showed that al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is more popular among Pakistanis than Musharraf himself. — AFP