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Pakistan kills about 22 militants, eyes new fronts

Pakistani troops have killed about 22 militants near the Afghan border, after the government said new fronts against militants in the north-west might be opened.

HANGU, Pakistan // Pakistani troops have killed about 22 militants in the Kurram region on the Afghan border, officials said today, after the government said new fronts against militants in the north-west might be opened. The army launched a major offensive in the South Waziristan ethnic Pashtun tribal region on the Afghan border in October and has said it has killed nearly 600 Pakistani Taliban militants, although there has been no independent verification of that toll. But many militants are believed to have fled to other lawless ethnic Pashtun tribal regions on the Afghan border. The United States wants Pakistan to tackle Afghan Taliban enclaves on the border as part of its strategy to bring stability to violence-plagued Afghanistan eight years after US-led troops forced a Taliban government from power.

Pakistani media said US commanders, including Central Command chief General David Petraeus, were due in Islamabad for talks today. Pakistani forces backed by artillery and fighter aircraft attacked militants in Kurram late yesterday and today and destroyed 10 of their hideouts, administration officials and intelligence agents said. "About 15 militants were killed in bombing late Saturday and we have reports of another seven killed on Sunday," said a senior government official who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to media.

Intelligence officials confirmed the death toll while a military official said five soldiers had also been killed in the fighting. The army offensive in South Waziristan, a global Islamist hub on the Afghan border, was the army's biggest in years involving 30,000 troops. Militants have hit back with bombings in towns and cities in which hundreds of people have been killed. The army has made major gains in South Waziristan, capturing a string of Taliban strongholds, but many militants are believed to have fled to other northwestern regions including Kurram, Orakzai and North Waziristan.

The prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said yesterday the army might shift its focus on Orakzai, south-west of the city of Peshawar, which borders Kurram. Orakzai and Kurram are strongholds of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud. Intelligence officials say paramilitary forces have been moving against militants in Orakzai for several weeks, but Kurram had been largely quiet. The US president Barack Obama has said victory in Afghanistan would only be possible with Pakistani co-operation and stronger efforts to wipe out militant sanctuaries within Pakistan.

Pakistani officials fear his plan to send 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan will push militants over the border and create new trouble for Pakistan, which is also struggling to improve an economy damaged by security fears. US attempts to push Pakistan to root out Taliban and al Qa'eda fighters, as well as US drone aircraft attacks on suspected militants, have created intense anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and raised political tension.

* Reuters

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