KHAR, PAKISTAN // Security forces backed by helicopter gunships and artillery killed more than 60 insurgents in North-west Pakistan in offensives aimed at denying al Qa'eda and Taliban militants safe havens, officials said today. The attacks come amid intense US pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militants blamed for attacks both at home and on coalition forces in neighbouring Afghanistan. A lorry bombing over the weekend at a luxury hotel in the capital Islamabad that killed 53 people underscored the threat extremists pose to the nuclear-armed nation.
More than 50 of the alleged insurgents, along with one soldier, died in clashes since yesterday in Kohat region, which borders Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas, army spokesman Maj Murad Khan said. He said the military had retaken control of key mountain tunnel from the insurgents. In the nearby Bajur tribal region, security forces killed at least 10 militants during an ongoing offensive there, government official Iqbal Khattak said.
That operation, which began in early August, has won praise from US officials worried about rising violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but has triggered retaliatory suicide bombings elsewhere in Pakistan. Some officials believe the weekend bombing of the Marriott Hotel may have been a response to the Bajur operations, which the army says has left more than 700 suspected militants dead. Washington says the operation in Bajur - a rumoured hiding place of al Qa' eda leader Osama bin Laden - appears to have reduced violence across the border in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas has said Bajur had turned into a "mega-sanctuary" for militants and the military was determined to flush them out. However, a rash of US cross-border operations in neighbouring tribal regions, including suspected missile strikes and a ground assault, underscore Washington's concerns that Pakistan is either unwilling or incapable of rooting out extremists on its own.
The Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was expected to discuss the cross-border attacks with the US President George W Bush today on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. In the latest such alleged breach, two US helicopters crossed 2kms into Pakistan late Sunday in the Alwara Mandi area in North Waziristan, two intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Citing informants in the field, they said Pakistani troops and tribesmen responded with small arms fire, but it was not clear whether the bullets were aimed at the choppers or were warning shots.
The helicopters did not return fire and re-entered Afghan airspace without landing, the officials said. That account was denied by Pentagon officials. "There was no such incursion, there was no such event," said Defense Department spokesman Col Gary L Keck. Pakistan has protested US cross-border operations, calling them violations of its sovereignty. But its government has called for diplomatic measures to resolve the dispute. Zardari told NBC television in a recent interview that he welcomed US intelligence help, but not its troops.
"Give us the intelligence and we will do the job," he said. "It's better done by our forces than yours." Police fired warning shots to disperse rioters who torched a bank during a protest against the lack of electricity and gas in the northwestern town of Swat, said police officer Mohibullah Khan. Mr Khan said militants bombed Swat's electricity station and gas line supplying the town last week. Meanwhile, the US Defense Department said one of two Americans killed in Marriott Hotel blast was Maj Rodolfo I Rodriguez, 34, of El Paso, Texas.
The hotel attack, a favourite spot for foreigners in Islamabad, has led diplomatic missions, aid groups and other expatriate organisations to review security measures. A spokesman for British Airways today said it was "indefinitely" suspending its flights to and from Pakistan "in light of the current security situation." The company that runs four visa application centres for the British High Commission in Pakistan has closed them pending a security review, commission spokesman Aidan Liddle said.