ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – A top U.S. commander met with Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Kayani on Tuesday, as Pakistani forces repulsed an attack by Taliban fighters close to a fort in a restive tribal region.
Admiral William Fallon’s visit followed days of clashes between Pakistani troops and militants loyal to Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban commander suspected of orchestrating the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month.
Fallon, head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, met with Kayani in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, officials said. President Pervez Musharraf was away in Europe trying to rally support at a time when the West is increasingly worried by instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan. There is stubborn speculation that a national election due on Feb. 18 could be delayed, despite Musharraf’s assurances it will go ahead.
Musharraf, who quit as army chief, isn’t running as he secured a second presidential term last November, but the character of the parliament that emerges from the polls could decide how long he remains in charge.
While keen to see more democracy in Pakistan, the United States does not want the army there to lose focus on the war against terrorism.
Since late last week, Pakistan says it has killed and captured scores of militants in clashes in Mehsud areas of South Waziristan, where security forces have fought al Qaeda-linked militants for years.
On Tuesday, military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said the militants suffered more heavy casualties in an overnight assault on an observation post near the Ladha fort.
Security forces responded with artillery and mortar fire. “The militants suffered heavy casualties but we haven’t been able to get the exact number,” Abbas told Dawn Television. He said security forces were simply responding to attacks and no offensive had been launched.
Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the militants, denied the heavy losses and said 10 soldiers were killed and 13 captured.
Abbas said five soldiers were killed and seven wounded in the four-hour battle, but denied any had been taken prisoner.
Mehsud has been blamed also for a string of attacks in a suicide bomb campaign that intensified after commandos stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque last July. On Wednesday last week, his men attacked and captured another fort in Waziristan.
Fallon told reporters in Florida last week that Pakistan was increasingly willing to fight Islamist militants and accept U.S. help, without saying what kind of support. But, he added that he believed Pakistani leaders wanted a “more robust” effort by U.S. forces to train and advise their forces in counterinsurgency efforts. The United States has already announced plans to step up training of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force recruited from tribal lands.