Pakistani soldiers backed by war planes and helicopter gunships killed 60 militants in a major offensive waged against insurgents near the Afghan border, a security official said on Tuesday.
Pakistani forces launched the crackdown in Mohmand district as early as the weekend but a paramilitary official said “60 hardcore militants” were killed in the last 24 hours, including local insurgent commanders.
The operation was made public as General David Petraeus, the US commander for southwest Asia and a key advocate of an imminent US troop surge in Afghanistan, held talks with the Pakistani government about the insurgency.
Pakistan’s rugged tribal belt is a key battleground in the US-led “war on terror” and home to hundreds if not thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda linked militants, who fled Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in late 2001.
“The operation is going on in Mohmand. The forces have secured a large area in the troubled district and militant strongholds have been destroyed,” the paramilitary official said on condition of anonymity.
Mohmand is a known Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold.
Another security official said the militants suffered losses in attacks by “war planes, helicopter gunships and use of artillery and shelling by tanks.”
Those killed included two commanders of the Taliban militants, he said.
“We have confirmation that commander Anwar Sayed and commander Shakirullah were killed in the operation today,” the second security official said.
Their bases were also destroyed, the official added.
He also said that troops demolished or torched at least 27 houses belonging to tribesmen who offered shelter to the militants. Five civilians were wounded in the shelling, he added.
None of the statistics given out by the Pakistani security officials could be confirmed through independent sources.
Residents who confirmed the offensive said helicopters also targeted insurgent camps and predicted early Tuesday that “casualties may go up.”
Tuesday’s military operation came 10 days after a major gunbattle in the same region where hundreds of foreign militants attacked Pakistani forces, sparking clashes that left six soldiers and 40 militants dead, officials said.
That was the biggest recent assault against Pakistani security forces, who are battling to flush out militants in parts of the restive northwest.
Nationwide, a wave of attacks carried out by Islamist extremists across Pakistan have killed more than 1,500 people in the past 17 months.
Officials charged that most of the insurgents infiltrated the border from Afghanistan and were backed up by local Taliban fighters.