ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Taliban militants bombed a convoy of Pakistani troops and opened fire on the survivors, sparking a battle that killed five security officers and seven attackers, officials and militants said Wednesday.
Violent clashes in regions near the Afghan border and suicide bombings across the country are undermining confidence in Pakistan and its already crisis-threatened economy.
Tuesday’s attack occurred in the Swat valley, a former tourist destination just 90 miles (150 kilometers) from the capital where troops have been battling Islamic extremists for a year.
Swat police chief Dilawar Bangash said a roadside bomb hit a convoy of trucks and armored vehicles carrying rations and ammunition through the Sarsena area of the valley.
Militants fired a dozen rockets and heavy gunfire on the stricken convoy, setting off some of the ammunition and killing two paramilitary troops, he said.
Other troops then engaged the militants in an hourslong gunbattle, killing seven of them. However, insurgents captured and killed two more troops and a police officer who had run out of bullets, Bangash said.
Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said 15 security forces were killed and only five militants died.
Government restrictions that ban foreigners and most journalists from the restive frontier region make it very difficult for reporters to verify casualty figures from Swat or Bajur, a nearby district regarded as a haven for Taliban and al-Qaida militants and where officials claim to have killed more than 1,000 insurgents since August.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher on Monday praised Pakistani forces for their operations against the militants, who are blamed for attacks on both sides of the frontier. However, there are doubts about the pro-Western government’s ability to deliver on its vows to eliminate well-organized and heavily armed extremist groups who have seized control of swaths of the northwest.
Khan, the Taliban spokesman, said the government is acting on U.S. orders and said the militants should be regarded as Muslim warriors, a view shared by many ordinary Pakistanis.
“We want to tell the American people that they should put pressure on their government to stop brutalities against Muslims as this war against terrorism is nothing but a waste of their tax money,” Khan told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The government, meanwhile, is urging Western donors to recognize the price Pakistan is paying in that war and stump up billions of dollars to avert a looming financial crisis.
High oil prices and dwindling investment from overseas have triggered a balance of payments crisis that is undermining the Pakistani rupee and raising the prospect that it could default on its foreign debts.
Allies such as China and Saudi Arabia as well as the United States have yet to come forward with funds, increasing the likelihood that Pakistan will approach the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans.