JAMRUD, Pakistan, (Reuters) – Pakistani army helicopters attacked militants along the Khyber Pass on Wednesday while tanks rumbled in to secure the vital supply link for Western forces in land-locked Afghanistan.
Authorities suspended the shipment of supplies up to the Afghan border on Tuesday to clear the way for the military to launch an offensive aimed at ending surging militant attacks on the route.
“Two helicopter gunships pounded militant hideouts while troops moved with tanks to secure the area,” said Jehangir Khan Afridi, an administration official in the Khyber region.
The Khyber Pass runs between the northwestern city of Peshawar and the border town of Torkham and is a vital supply line for more than 65,000 Western troops battling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
The U.S. military sends 75 percent of supplies for the Afghan war through or over Pakistan, including 40 percent of the fuel for its troops, the U.S. Defense Department says.
A second overland route is through the town of Chaman to the southwest leading to the Afghan city of Kandahar, and is likely to become more important as the United States begins moving up to 30,000 new troops into Afghanistan next year.
Militants in Khyber have been trying to choke off supplies for months and have destroyed hundreds of trucks and killed several drivers.
Many truckers have stopped working on the road and supplies had been disrupted but not cut off until authorities sealed the route temporarily on Tuesday.
A spokesman for NATO’s Afghan force welcomed the effort to make the route safer and played down the impact on military operations saying the force had stocks.
Nevertheless, the attacks have exposed the vulnerability of the route and forced the alliance to look for alternatives, including through Central Asia into northern Afghanistan.
Authorities have not said how long the offensive would last, only that they were determined to clear militants out.
The governor of the North West Frontier Province, Owais Ahmed Ghani, said the offensive would continue until objectives had been achieved and it could be extended to other areas. He did not elaborate.
Intelligence officials said on Tuesday troops had faced pockets of militant resistance and Afridi said two important militant hideouts had been destroyed.
But officials and residents said on Wednesday most insurgents had apparently fled the Khyber region to neighbouring areas. “There has been no fire from the militants. They must have fled to remote areas or to Mohmand,” said resident Irfan Afridi, referring to a neighbouring region where security forces have also been fighting Pakistani Taliban insurgents.
Militants melted away in June when security forces launched a similar sweep in Khyber.
A pro-Taliban ethnic Pashtun tribal elder surrendered to authorities, promising his tribe would support security. “We’re loyal to Pakistan and the government. We will not fight security forces, offer resistance nor give shelter to militants or criminals,” the tribal leader, Attaullah Khan, told Reuters.
The offensive has coincided with growing tension with old rival India after the late November militant attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that India blamed on Pakistan-based militants.
The Pakistani military has moved some troops off its western border with Afghanistan in response to the tension.