MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani troops and helicopter gunships targeted Islamist militant hideouts in the Swat Valley on Sunday, the military said, after fierce fighting killed 50 militants and 10 soldiers in the past 24 hours.
Countering growing violence is a test for a fractious coalition government engaged in infighting after staunch U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf quit as president last week.
Security concerns, uncertainty over the government’s future
and worry about the economy have undermined investor confidence and sent the country’s financial markets on a downward spiral.
The clashes in mountainous Swat in Pakistan’s northwest erupted after militants attacked a security patrol and a suicide car bomber killed eight policemen elsewhere in the valley.
“Fighting is still going on. We hit and destroyed over 40 militants’ bunkers and a training camp,” said Major Nasir Ali, military spokesman in the region.
“We have confirmed reports that 50 militants were killed while 10 of our soldiers were martyred.”
Ali said the number of militants’ deaths could be higher as many bodies had been taken away.
Residents in Kabal, about 20 km (13 miles) west of Mingora, the region’s main town, said intermittent mortar bombing by security forces has continued since Saturday while Cobra helicopter gunships carried out strikes early Sunday morning on militants’ positions in the mountains.
Seven villagers were killed and three wounded in mortar bombing, residents said.
“We can’t even flee. There’s curfew on the one hand and on the other hand, militants use us as human shield when they are attacked. What we can do?” villager Khaisat Bacha told Reuters.
The valley had been one of the country’s main tourist destinations until last year when Pakistani Taliban fighters infiltrated from enclaves on the Afghan border to support a radical cleric bent on imposing hardline Islamist rule.
Separately, suspected militants killed and dumped bodies of four men on the roadside in a village, police said, adding the hands and legs of them were tied with rope.
Pro-Taliban militants carry out such killings of those suspected of being U.S. or government spies.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan is on the front line of the U.S.-led war against terrorism and al Qaeda-linked militants have unleashed a wave of violence across the country over the past year against the security forces.
More than 200,000 people have fled fighting in northwestern Pakistan this month and are in urgent need of relief assistance, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Friday.
In the South Waziristan tribal region, al Qaeda- and Taliban-linked militants ambushed a military convoy near the Afghan border on Sunday, wounding three soldiers, security officials said.
On Thursday, two suicide bombers killed about 70 people outside the country’s main defense industry complex near Islamabad.
The resignation of former army chief Musharraf under threat of impeachment had raised questions about the government’s commitment to tackle violence.
But while Musharraf’s support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism was deeply unpopular, the government has vowed to keep up efforts to fight the militants.