Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships and artillery pounded militant positions in northwest Pakistan, killing at least 60 fighters and wounding many others, the military said yesterday.
The assault occurred on Friday evening in the Swat valley, shortly after troops found one of two Chinese engineers alive who had been held hostage by Taliban militants, an army statement said.
It said militants still held the second Chinese hostage but efforts were under way to rescue him.
“According to our information, at least 60 Taliban died and many others were wounded during yesterday’s operation around Matta town. This is the same area where one Chinese engineer was recovered,” it said.
It was not immediately possible to independently confirm the casualties. Reporters cannot visit the area because of poor security and government restrictions. No Taliban spokesman was available for comment.
The statement didn’t mention any losses among government forces.
Swat was once a popular tourist destination, but the region has become a battleground since last year when Pakistan sent troops to confront Mullah Fazlullah, a hardline cleric who launched a violent campaign to enforce Taliban-style Islamic law.
Although the government has regained control in parts of Swat, Fazlullah’s men — allegedly reinforced by other militant groups including al-Qaeda affiliates — are still resisting.
Fighting is also raging in the nearby region of Bajur, a militant stronghold overlooking the border with Afghanistan.
The two Chinese telecommunications engineers disappeared in the Dir region of northwestern Pakistan on Aug. 29, and later a spokesman for Taliban militants in Swat claimed they were holding the pair.
Beijing has urged Pakistan to rescue the hostages, who reportedly worked for Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment and were servicing equipment installed in the area.
Pakistani officials have said the men disregarded advice to take a heavy security detail before traveling to Dir, which lies between Swat and Bajur.
Meanwhile, Islamabad wants to talk to the next US administration about boosting investment in border regions hit by Islamist militant violence, Chinese state media quoted Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari as saying.
Pakistan’s relations with the US are strained after US forces in Afghanistan carried out cross-border strikes on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan.
Washington wants Pakistan to stop the free flow of militants from its near-lawless border states into Afghanistan to join the Taliban insurgency but Islamabad is wary of provoking a backlash.
The official China Daily newspaper quoted Zardari as saying Islamabad would encourage investment in the troubled regions and try to win more preferential treatment for their products in US markets. Zardari ended a four-day visit to China on Friday.
“We are looking for a dialogue when the new US administration comes into being. And we are going to work firmly for the signing of a FTA [free trade agreement] for these regions,” Zardari said.
But Zardari said that Islamist militancy in Pakistan was it’s “own problem,” the paper said.
“It is basically our own war. It has been wrongly described as America’s war,” Zardari said.
Pakistan rules out foreign military strikes on its territory, saying they not only violate its sovereignty but are counterproductive, increasing support for militants in a country where many people oppose backing the US.
Top US officials have vowed to respect Pakistani sovereignty but have declined to rule out more air strikes.
The US presidential election takes place on Nov. 4 and Afghanistan is one of the major foreign policy issues.
US presidential candidate Democratic Senator Barack Obama said he would authorize strikes on militants in Pakistan if Islamabad proved “unable or unwilling” to act.
His Republican opponent Senator John McCain has called for a quiet policy and says support from the Pakistani people is necessary.
Zardari also said eradicating poppy production was the key to fighting militants in the region, and that poppy growers in Pakistan should be persuaded to grow corn to take advantage of rising prices linked to the growing ethanol industry.
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