KHAR, PAKISTAN // Pakistani security forces killed 10 more suspected insurgents as part of a major military offensive near the Afghan border that has spawned retaliatory attacks by the Pakistani Taliban. More than 700 suspected militants have been killed since the operation in Bajur tribal region launched in early August, the army said. The offensive has earned praise from US officials at a time of tense relations between the two anti-terror allies and rising violence in the Muslim nation, including a massive weekend bombing at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad that killed 53 people.
Iqbal Khattak, a government official, said the latest casualties came early today, when the 10 suspected militants died in an intense shootout with security forces on the outskirts of Bajur's main city of Khar. He said some security forces were wounded, but he would not say how many. The US said the operation in Bajur - a rumoured hiding place of the al Qa'eda leader Osama bin Laden - appears to have reduced violence across the border in Afghanistan. Washington has pushed Pakistan to crackdown on the tribal areas, which militants use as bases to prepare for attacks on American and Nato forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's chief army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas has said Bajur had turned into a mega-sanctuary for militants and that it simply had to be cleared out. Still, 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. Pakistan has officially protested the strikes, calling them violations of its sovereignty. But its civilian leaders have called for diplomatic measures to resolve the dispute.
The Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari was expected to bring up the issue in a meeting with President Bush today on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban have taken credit for a string of suicide bombings in recent weeks, saying they were revenge for the Bajur offensive and ongoing military actions in the volatile northwest's Swat Valley. However, the top Pakistani Taliban commander has denied a role in the hotel bombing, which also wounded nearly 270 people on Saturday. Experts and officials said the explosion bore the hallmarks of al Qa'eda, but that the Taliban may still have assisted in its execution. Late yesterday, the Dubai-based TV channel Al Arabiya said it received a tape from a shadowy group calling itself "Fedayeen Al-Islam" - claiming responsibility for the Marriott bombing and calling on Pakistan to end co-operation with the United States.