(Updates death toll)
By Ibrahim Shinwari
LANDIKOTAL, Pakistan, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Pakistani security forces aim to recapture trucks hijacked by militants as they were taking supplies to Western forces in Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass, a government official said on Tuesday.
Most supplies, including fuel, for U.S. and other Western forces battling a Taliban insurgency in landlocked Afghanistan are trucked through neighbouring Pakistan, which is also facing growing militant violence including a wave of bomb attacks.
In the latest attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a stadium in the northwestern city of Peshawar shortly after the closing ceremony of an inter-provincial games, killing three people and wounding nearly a dozen, hospital officials said.
Pakistani Taliban militants hijacked 13 trucks without firing a shot as they passed through the Khyber Pass on Monday. The gunmen later posed for photographs in front of two Humvee military vehicles and some of the trucks.
Security forces had blocked the main road from Peshawar through the pass to the border at Torkham in preparation for a recovery operation, and army helicopters later attacked militants, government officials said.
“Two helicopter gunships went and hit militants’ positions in the Malagori area but there’s no report of casualties,” said Bakhtiar Mohmand, a senior government administrator in the area.
Malagori is an area north of the Khyber Pass where militants have hideouts, he said.
“We have asked for foot soldiers and as soon as they get here, we’ll launch a ground operation,” he said.
The trucks were carrying two Humvees and wheat but no weapons or ammunition, another official said. The militants unloaded the trucks and abandoned them but held most of the drivers.
The Khyber region has long been notorious for smuggling and lawlessness, but until recently it was relatively free of Islamist militants.
But security has deteriorated this year and soldiers carried out a sweep in part of the Khyber region in June to push militants back from the outskirts of Peshawar.
Officials said the militants who seized the trucks were loyal to Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who is based in the Waziristan region to the southwest of Khyber.
The militants posed for photographs with a banner over one of the Humvees proclaiming their membership of Mehsud’s group.
Transport operators say the government has ignored security along the road. About two dozen trucks and oil-tankers have been attacked in the past month.
Torkham, at the top of the Khyber Pass, is one of only two main crossing points on the Afghan-Pakistani border. The other is at the town of Chaman, to the southwest, from where a road runs to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
Many goods for Western forces in Afghanistan are shipped into Pakistan’s Karachi port and trucked through the crossing points.
NATO and Russia signed a land transit agreement in April allowing the alliance to use Russian land to deliver non-lethal supplies to troops in Afghanistan but it was not immediately clear what volume of NATO supplies was coming that way.
This year, four U.S. helicopter engines worth more than $13 million were stolen in northwest Pakistan while being trucked from Afghanistan to Karachi port to be shipped home.
Pakistani forces have been fighting militants in the Bajaur region and in the Swat Valley, both to the northeast of Khyber, and there has been growing speculation about an offensive in the Mohmand area, to the north of Peshawar.
Security forces were searching for militants by a road on the way to Mohmand on Tuesday and hundreds of villagers were leaving in fear of fighting, police and a government official said.
“We haven’t asked people to leave, they are doing it on their own, but it’s good if they do so before any trouble starts,” said the government official in Ghalanai, the main town in Mohmand. (Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Izaz Mohmand and Faris Ali; Editing by Ralph Boulton)