Militants attack three security force bases and military jets respond with air strikes that killed at least 21 people.
Air strikes kill 21 in Pakistan
ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's army offensive in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan heated up today, with militants attacking three security force bases and military jets responding with air strikes that killed at least 21 people, intelligence officials said. The overnight and early morning clashes follow artillery attacks yesterday on suspected militant hide-outs in two towns in the north-west that killed 27 fighters, officials said. Elsewhere in the volatile region, a citizens' militia killed seven suspected militants. The government announced last week that the military would go after Pakistan's Taliban commander, Baitullah Mehsud, in the South Waziristan tribal area. His stronghold is a chunk of the remote and rugged mountainous region where heavily armed tribesmen hold sway and al Qa'eda and Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding. Washington supports anti-militant operations, seeing them as a measure of nuclear-armed Pakistan's resolve in taking on a growing insurgency. The battle in the tribal region could also help the war in Afghanistan because the area has been used by militants to launch cross-border attacks on US and other troops. Militants used mortars, rockets, gunfire and even an anti-aircraft gun to attack three military bases overnight in South and North Waziristan, five intelligence officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to talk with media. Their reports could not be confirmed because of a lack of media access to the conflict zones, and official military spokesmen could not be reached for comment. No government casualties were reported, but the intelligence officials said security forces responded with artillery and air strikes on at least six villages against militant targets, including a suspected training camp where eight people were killed. While most of the dead appeared to be militants, three women and three children died when the house of a local tribal leader was hit in the Razmak area, one official said. The military is trying to avoid civilian casualties, worried about public backlash at a time when support for a crackdown on extremism has been gathering strength in anger over suicide bombings and other attacks. The president Asif Zardari claimed yesterday that the entire country backs the battle against the extremists, citing the support as a key to the military's success so far. "The operations before this were not successful because they did not have a public support," Mr Zardari said in a speech. Local citizens militias, known as lashkars, have been emerging that have attacked and reportedly killed dozens of Taliban. A majority of Pakistanis oppose extremism, but the Taliban have gained influence in several areas, including Dir and Swat Valley, in recent years. The militants also have some support in the tribal regions. Public support for the army offensive also could erode if the government is perceived to have failed more than two million people displaced by the fighting. The first refugees are expected to start going home at the end of the week.