TANG KHATTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani forces have killed up to 1,000 Islamist militants in an offensive for control over the strategically key northwestern region of Bajaur this month, an army commander said on Friday.
Government forces launched an offensive in Bajaur in August and have been involved in heavy fighting since then.
“When we got into the intensity of battle it was like putting your hand in a wasps’ hive,” said Tariq Khan, a major-general in the Pakistan army who was posted to Bajaur recently and appointed Inspector General of the paramilitary Frontier Corps. “Everything was exploding around you,” he told a group of reporters in Khar, the region’s main town, on a visit organised by the army.
Bajaur is the smallest of Pakistan’s seven so-called tribal agencies, semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun regions along the Afghan border, with a population of just one million people.
But it provides access to surrounding Pakistani regions as well as the eastern Afghan province of Kunar.
U.S. officials say Taliban and al Qaeda-linked fighters, financed by drug money, use the tribal regions as an operating base to launch attacks inside Afghanistan, where Western forces are struggling to stem a growing insurgency.
Pakistan has been under mounting pressure from the United States to eliminate militant sanctuaries in its northwest.
The militants have also unleashed a bloody bombing campaign in Pakistani cities.
Khan estimated 65 percent of the militant problem would be eliminated if they were defeated in Bajaur, describing the region as a “centre of gravity” for the Islamist guerrillas.
“If they lose here, they’ve lost almost everything,” said Khan, an ethnic Pashtun army officer.
There are around 9,000 regular army and paramilitary Frontier Corps soldiers deployed in Bajaur.
Taken to the village of Tang Khatta just a few kilometres away from Khar, the visiting journalists saw helicopter gunships laying down fire on militant positions among the mud-walled compounds, surrounded by fields of unharvested maize.
Tang Khatta had been a militant stronghold. There was plenty of evidence of the fierce fight the militants put up, and their remnants were still resisting.
A destroyed tank lay beside a road, shell casings littered the ground, and walls were blown away by artillery and rocket fire.
Standing safe behind the village’s metre thick outer wall, Colonel Javaid Baluch described how his men fought house to house, and apologised for not being able to show the journalists more as the gunfire crackled outside.
Baloch said the militants took cover in caves and dried-up stream beds, known as nullahs, whenever government forces attacked.
“I wish I could take you there but they are in the nullahs,” Baloch said.
A military spokesman later informed the journalists that three officers had been critically wounded in the fighting on Friday, including a a major who had lost both legs and another who lost any eye.
Khan’s previous command was in South Waziristan, at the southwest extreme of the tribal belt, where his forces bottled up Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
He described the conflict in Waziristan as more of a “tribal war”, whereas the situation in Bajaur, at the northeast extreme, had more “international linkages”.
Between 500 and 1,000 militants had been killed since the beginning of the month, while 62 soldiers had been killed and 112 wounded, Khan said.
He said his men had taken 90 prisoners, an unusually high number that showed the militants were standing and fighting and not running away.
Pakistani intelligence officers have said al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al Zawahri was believed to have visited Bajaur in recent years.
In January 2006, a CIA-operated pilotless drone aircraft fired missiles at a house in Bajaur in the belief Zawahri was visiting there. At least 18 villagers were killed.
Khan said he couldn’t be sure if any top al Qaeda figures were in Bajaur, but seven or eight Taliban commanders and a couple of known Egyptian militants were among those already killed.
Also killed were two sons of the region’s top Taliban commander, Faqir Mohammad, who had also been wounded, Khan said.
He put the enemy’s strength at around 2,000, including Afghans, Uzbeks and Arabs as well as Pakistani Taliban. Despite heavy casualties the militants’ fighting strength had not gone down appreciably because reinforcements had arrived from other parts of the northwest and from Afghanistan, he said.
“I personally feel that trained squads have been moved in,” Khan said.
The fighting in Bajaur and in the Swat Valley to the east has forced several hundred thousand villagers from their homes.
In the nearby village of Raghagan, about 400 men armed with old rifles, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades have formed a militia, known as a lashkar, to fight the Taliban.
Its commander, Malik Munasid Khan, said he and his men would also fight U.S. soldiers if they crossed the border from Afghanistan.
“We fill fight to the last soul against the Americans.”