PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Pakistan said on Friday 32 militants and five soldiers were killed in the heaviest battle of a new assault against Arab, Afghan and Uzbek fighters in the wake of a US vote of confidence.
The fight in Orakzai district, part of Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt shadowing the border with Afghanistan that Washington considers an Al-Qaeda headquarters, was the deadliest such incident for Pakistani troops in months.
Paramilitary and army troops on Wednesday expanded their campaign against Taliban believed to have fled a major offensive in South Waziristan last year by launching an assault to eradicate them from neighbouring Orakzai.
Dozens of Islamist fighters stormed a security check post at Kalaya, on the outskirts of the district’s main town, sparking a counter-attack that finally recaptured the post overnight, the military said.
“Thirty-two militants were killed in yesterday’s clash in Kalaya. Those killed in the fighting were mostly Uzbek and Arabs. We have their bodies,” Frontier Corps (FC) paramilitary Major General Tariq Khan told reporters.
The army also confirmed that five security personnel, including a lieutenant colonel, were killed in the fighting.
The military has so far announced a running death toll of 68 militants in the Orakzai operation, but none of the tolls can be verified independently because access by reporters to the remote areas involved is extremely limited.
Pakistan’s mountainous and semi-autonomous tribal belt became a stronghold for hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked extremists who fled Afghanistan to regroup and launch cross-border attacks after the US-led invasion in late 2001.
Five battalions uniting the army, FC and paramilitary police have launched the multi-pronged assault in Orakzai which is “progressing well,” Khan said.
Orakzai is a former bastion of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud, whom US officials believe probably died in a US drone attack last January, but the military said there was no evidence he was in the area.
US officials have praised Pakistan for launching assaults against homegrown militants, particularly the TTP, but also want the military to crack down on groups who attack NATO troops in Afghanistan.
This week, Pakistan and the United States held high-profile talks in Washington, designed to forge a closer relationship between the two countries, whose strategic alliance has fanned massive resentment in Pakistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the nations were starting a “new day” with the dialogue, which the United States hopes will show the Pakistani public that it wants a relationship that goes beyond battling militants.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi went a step further, saying US officials and lawmakers were no longer questioning whether his country was two-faced in its fight against extremism.
Pakistan’s army chief of staff General Ashfaq Kayani also attended the talks, underscoring the twin military and civilian tracks to the relationship that has seen the US Congress pass a 7.5 billion dollar aid bill for Pakistan.
But foreign officials and analysts question the degree to which Islamabad is willing to clamp down on warlords fighting against the Americans, as well as fight against local Taliban blamed for devastating suicide attacks at home.
“This framework is based on the assumption that Pakistan would continue to take firm action against Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban in Pakistan and perhaps some dialogue between some elements of the Taliban and the Afghan government,” security and political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP.
Experts say the military cannot overstretch itself, seeing little immediate prospect of Pakistan cracking down on the Afghan Taliban Haqqani network or launching a direct offensive against militant fortresses in North Waziristan.
Although the fighting in Orakzai could be seen as a possible precursor to a more sustained assault on North Waziristan, commanders are tight lipped.
“We will launch an operation in North Waziristan also, but details about when and how the offensive will be launched will be released by the Pakistan army,” Khan told reporters on Friday.