PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) — Pakistani troops battled Islamic militants during a search for several hijacked trucks full of ammunition, with up to 30 rebels and two soldiers killed, the army said.
Helicopter gunships were also involved in the clashes in Dara Adam Khel, a lawless area of North West Frontier Province near the city of Peshawar where the lorries were seized by rebels a day earlier, officials and residents said.
Unrest is spreading along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, with troops separately engaged in a major operation in the tribal stronghold of an Al-Qaeda-linked militant blamed for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
The instability prompted US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to offer on Thursday that the United States is "ready, willing and able" to conduct joint combat operations in the troubled region if Islamabad agrees.
Pakistan's Western allies are increasingly concerned about the situation in the nuclear-armed Islamic republic since Bhutto's killing last month, with President Pervez Musharraf under pressure to keep a lid on the violence.
In the latest flare-up, Pakistani troops launched a "search and cordon" operation in Dara Adam Khel -- the site of a major tribal weapons bazaar -- to find four trucks containing munitions and supplies, the army said.
"Reportedly, 25-30 miscreants have been killed... Two Frontier Corps personnel embraced shahadat (martyrdom) and 10 others were injured," an army statement added.
Chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said skirmishes were continuing in the region including near a landmark Japanese-built tunnel leading from Peshawar to the northwestern city of Kohat.
Residents said all markets were closed and gunship helicopters were pounding militant bunkers in the hills around the arms bazaar and the tunnel. The main road was also closed, they said.
Security officials said Dara Adam Khel had recently become a stronghold of the banned Sunni Muslim extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has links to Al-Qaeda.
Separately, troops on Friday continued to comb mountains in the tribal region of South Waziristan around the hideout of Islamist warlord Baitullah Mehsud, officials said.
Mehsud is accused by Pakistani officials and the US Central Intelligence Agency of orchestrating Bhutto's killing in a gun and suicide bomb attack at a political rally on December 27.
He has denied any involvement.
"A house-to-house search operation is underway in the areas where the security forces have consolidated their positions," military spokesman Abbas told AFP.
More than 200 militants and 30 soldiers are said to have died during three weeks of fighting in South Waziristan.
But a security source said the government was not naming Mehsud as the primary target of the current operation because "going public with this information can instigate militant groups to launch attacks in the mainland."
Pakistan has been hit by more than 50 suicide bombings in the past 12 months, killing at least 800 people. The government has blamed most of those on Mehsud's network.
In Washington, US defence chief Gates stepped up the pressure on Islamabad to let US troops onto its soil.
Asked if his offer of joint operations meant US soldiers fighting with Pakistan troops against Al-Qaeda in the tribal belt, Gates told a Pentagon press conference: "If the Pakistanis wanted to do that, I think we would."
But Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has dismissed all talk of combined offensives with US forces in Pakistani territory.
A senior foreign ministry official on Friday said Gates's suggestion of joint operations "cannot be allowed, it will not be allowed."
Meanwhile in Bajaur -- another of Pakistan's seven semi-autonomous tribal districts -- a tribal elder was killed by a roadside bomb and a retired security official was shot dead on Friday, officials said.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »