DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) – Helicopter gunships fired on vehicles carrying suspected Islamic militants close to the Afghan border, killing eight of them, the military said Friday. Two deaths were reported in fighting elsewhere in the region.
The eight were killed when Cobra gunships fired on two vehicles carrying rebels near one of two forts that came under rebel attack earlier this week in South Waziristan, the military said in a statement.
The attacks on the forts highlighted rising rebel control over the area where al-Qaida and Taliban militants blamed for a surge in suicide attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan are known to use as a staging ground.
Meanwhile, fighting Friday killed two people close to the village of Chakmalai in the same province, said Alam Sher, a medical orderly stationed there. He said that a large number of infantrymen had moved in under the protection of helicopter gunships.
“Since early morning I have been hearing gunshots and explosions, and I am receiving calls from local people to come to provide medical aid to the injured,” he said, adding that nobody could get to the two bodies because the gunfire was continuous.
An intelligence official in the region confirmed that fighting was going on in Chakmalai and that the army and paramilitary Frontier Constabulary were trying to clear the area of pro-Taliban insurgents.
“Security troops moved in after fighting the militants, and they have taken up positions at strategic locations to prevent militants from operating from this area,” said the official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The fighting occurred a day after a suspected Sunni extremist blew himself up inside a Shiite mosque, killing 11 people in the northwestern city of Peshawar. The strike wounded 25 people, including a prominent Shiite cleric, ahead of this weekend’s Ashoura festival, which often is scarred by sectarian violence.
The attack added to tensions in the country ahead of Feb. 18 parliamentary elections that many predict will weaken President Pervez Musharraf’s grip on power eight years after he seized control of the nuclear-armed nation in a military coup.
Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said “security was already tight, but it has further been beefed up across the country” as a result of the blast.
Police and paramilitary forces mounted barbed wire barricades to control access to Shiite mosques in Peshawar. Snipers and machine gun posts were seen on rooftops. Shiite rites during the holy month of Muharram culminate in Ashoura, when tens of thousands of the minority group stage processions and beat their bare backs with chains and blades, bloodying themselves in a sign of penitence.
Sunni extremists, who regard Shiites as heretics, often launch attacks on the community during the month.
In 2005, about 50 people were killed when a bomb ripped through a Shiite shrine in southwestern Pakistan. Sunnis outnumber Shiites by about four to one in this overwhelmingly Islamic nation of 160 million people. Militants have launched a wave of suicide bombings against security forces and politicians in recent months, killing at least 400 people, including the Dec. 27 gun and bomb attack that killed secular opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who had vowed to battle Islamic extremism.
The CIA director said the agency had concluded that al-Qaeda and allies of local militant leader Baitullah Mehsud were responsible for the killing, echoing the Pakistan government’s assessment.
“It is clear that their intention is to continue to try to do harm to the Pakistani state as it currently exists,” Michael Hayden told The Washington Post in an interview on Friday. “This was done by that network around Baitullah Mehsud. We have no reason to question that.”
Bhutto’s political party have alleged allies of President Musharraf may have had a hand in the killing, charges that have resonated widely in Pakistan, where distrust toward the U.S.-allied leader runs high.