ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani security forces have killed 20 militants near the Afghan border, a security official said on Thursday, as tensions over how to tackle the Taliban and al Qaeda surfaced with the United States.
An intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan has piled pressure on Pakistan to go after militants operating from sanctuaries in remote enclaves on its side of the border. It has also led to a sharp increase in U.S. strikes on militants in Pakistan.
The new government in Islamabad says it is committed to the campaign against militancy, launched after the September 11 attacks seven years ago, but bans incursions by U.S. troops.
In the latest fighting in the northwestern Bajaur region, Pakistani security forces backed by helicopter gunships killed 20 militants in an attack on a militant stronghold in the village of Rashkai that began on Wednesday, security officials said.
“We’ve almost taken control of the area. Our troops are advancing and the operation is likely to be finished today,” said an official who declined to be identified.
A military official said four soldiers were killed and some Arabs were among the dead militants. Troops have killed more than 600 militants in Bajaur since August, the government says.
Militants in Bajaur, where some analysts believe top al Qaeda leaders have been hiding, cross into Afghanistan to attack Western troops and government forces there.
Violence in Afghanistan has soared over the past two years as al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have regrouped and the U.S. military said on Wednesday it was not winning there and would revise its strategy to combat militant havens in Pakistan.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that President George W. Bush had secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allowed U.S. special forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the approval of the Pakistani government.
Government and military spokesmen were not immediately available for comment on the report, but in a strongly worded statement late on Wednesday, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani said Pakistan would not allow foreign troops onto its soil.
Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be defended at all cost, he said, while dismissing speculation of a secret deal allowing U.S. forces to cross the border.
Helicopter-borne U.S. commandos carried out a ground assault in Pakistan’s South Waziristan, a militant border sanctuary, last week, the first known incursion into Pakistan by U.S. troops since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, killing 20 people.
Pakistan condemned the raid. Kayani said there were no quick fixes to a highly complex militant problem and reconciliation efforts were also needed.
Asked about Kayani’s statement, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, a Zardari appointee, said it reflected government views.
Some Pakistani analysts say a frustrated U.S. administration wants to score points before a November election but it risks sparking an uprising among ethnic Pashtuns on the border.
The U.S. attack also complicates the situation for Pakistan’s new civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, who was sworn in on Tuesday, having forced former army chief Pervez Musharraf to stand down last month after nine years in power.
The U.S.-led campaign against militancy is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where many people say backing for it has brought a wave of bloody militant attacks across the country.
Like Musharraf, Zardari is also seen as close to the United States. But as an elected civilian leader, Zardari will face pressure to pay heed to public opinion.
At the same time, Pakistan is highly vulnerable to any reduction in U.S. financial support, given the rapid depletion of Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves, which has sparked talk the country could default on a sovereign bond early next year unless it gets billions of dollars of foreign financing.
Ties with Afghanistan have also been strained by its complaints that militants are operating from Pakistani sanctuaries and its calls for the havens to be eliminated.
Pakistan says it is doing all it can to stop cross-border movement by militants. But it plays down the significance of sanctuaries, saying the Afghan war is an Afghan problem.