BANNU,Pakistan, (Reuters) – The Pakistani army attacked an area bordering a militant stronghold near the Waziristan tribal region on Thursday, killing scores of Taliban fighters with helicopter gunships and artillery shelling, officials said.
Already in the final stages of an operation to clear Islamist fighters from the Swat valley, far to the northwest and closer to Islamabad, the military said it went on the offensive in Bannu district after up to 800 militants infiltrated from Waziristan.
U.S. officials, who have been worried that nuclear-armed Pakistan could slide into chaos unless the Taliban’s advance weren’t stopped, have welcomed the offensive in Swat.
There has been speculation that once that was over the focus would switch to Waziristan, long regarded as a hub of Taliban and al Qaeda activity.
According to local military officials and a senior civilian official in Bannu well over 100 militants have been killed since the army swung into action on Wednesday.
“The operation is going on very well. Helicopter gunships, artillery, everything is being used,” Kamran Zeb, the top administrator in Bannu, told Reuters. “Yesterday, around 100 militants were killed in the operation,” Zeb said, adding that there had been more killed on Thursday.
Lying just outside the tribal areas, Bannu is the gateway to Waziristan and is 150 km (94 miles) southwest of Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, where a suicide truck bomb attack on a luxury hotel killed at least 9 people on Tuesday.
Speaking in Washington on Wednesday, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said he saw a dramatic shift in the Pakistani government’s attitude because of public outrage over the Taliban’s actions, including the attack on the hotel.
“What I saw in Pakistan on this trip was a slow emergence of a consensus behind the government’s actions,” Holbrooke said in Washington, reporting back on his trip last week.
Pakistan’s decision to opt for military action in Swat has been helped by a shift in public opinion. That support might ebb if the welfare of some 2.5 million people displaced by the conflict in the northwest is mishandled.
Nine aid agencies said on Thursday in London they would be forced to stop or cut back supplies of aid unless a funding crisis was resolved.
The United Nations has appealed for $543 million, but has received only $138 million — a quarter of that so far.
The United Nations is heavily involved in relief efforts, and 5 U.N. workers, including two foreigners, were among those killed in the suicide attack on Peshawar’s Pearl Continental hotel.
Security forces also used artillery and warplanes to obliterate a militant compound in the tribal region of Orakzai, killing at least five people, but probably more, according to the the region’s mayor.
“It’s been heavy bombing and there must be many more casualties, both militants and civilians. We’re trying to collect the numbers,” mayor Gul Khitab said.
A pro-Taliban cleric, Maulvi Jameel, said several militants’ positions and hideouts had been struck during the raid. He didn’t have information about casualties.
Immediately to the southwest of Peshawar, militants had until a year ago little presence in Orakzai, one of the more developed tribal regions.
In South Waziristan, militants fired rockets at a paramilitary base in Jandola killing two soldiers. The military have bottled up the main forces of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in rugged mountains close to Jandola.
A soldier was killed in another attack by the militants in the same region, while Taliban officials said four of their fighters were killed in the fighting in South Waziristan. There have been clashes scattered across Swat this week, but the largest population centres and key roads have been cleared of Taliban, and the army has smashed the militants main bases and training camps in the mountains.
The military says more than 1,300 militants and 105 soldiers have been killed in Swat, though there are no independent casualty estimates available.
Some Taliban fighters have fled through the passes to the Kalam valley in the north, and Upper Dir district, where the army has backed a tribal militia, or lashkar, that has turned on the insurgents.