TANG KHATTA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani forces have killed up to 1,000 Islamist militants in fighting in the strategically important northwestern region of Bajaur this month, an army commander said Friday.
Government forces launched an offensive in Bajaur in August and have been involved in heavy fighting since then.
Bajaur is one of Pakistan’s seven so-called tribal agencies, semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun regions along the Afghan border.
It is an important hub for militants, providing access to surrounding Pakistani regions as well as the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, said Major-General Tariq Khan.
U.S. officials say Taliban and al Qaeda-linked fighters use the tribal regions as an operating base to launch attacks inside Afghanistan, where Western forces are struggling to stem a growing insurgency.
“This is one area that if you are controlling can create a much greater effect on the entire region,” Khan told a group of reporters on a visit organized by the army.
Khan estimated 65 percent of the militant problem would be eliminated if they were defeated in Bajaur.
“If they lose here, they’ve lost almost everything.”
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 said between 500 and 1,000 militants had been killed since the beginning of the month, while 62 soldiers had been killed and 112 wounded.
Among the dead militants were seven or eight Taliban commanders and a couple of known Egyptian militants, Khan said.
Also killed were two sons of the region’s top Taliban commander, Faqir Mohammad, who had also been wounded, Khan said.
Afghans, Uzbeks and Arabs were among the militants, who numbered about 2,000. Militant reinforcements had been coming to join the fight from other parts of the northwest and from Afghanistan, he said.
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.
The village of Tang Khatta was a militant stronghold Khan’s men recently captured. A destroyed tank lay beside a road and shell casings littered the ground.
A helicopter gunship fired at a militant position several kilometers away.
Another officer said the militants took cover in caves and dried-up stream beds, known as nullahs, when government forces attacked.
“I wish I could take you there but they are in the nullahs,” said Colonel Javaid Baloch.
Khan said his men had taken 90 prisoners, adding that was an unusually high number and showed the militants were standing and fighting and not running away.
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.
The commander of the force, 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.”