January 20, 2009 / 9:24 AM / 9 years ago

Pakistan launches assault in NW, 20 militants dead

(Adds detail and background)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Pakistani security forces backed by aircraft killed at least 20 Taliban insurgents on Tuesday in a military assault in the Mohmand region on the Afghan border, a paramilitary spokesman said.

Pakistan is struggling to stem Islamist militant influence and violence in the northwest as it keeps a wary eye on its eastern border with India after militant attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai led to a spike in tension between the neighbours.

The offensive in Mohmand was launched as U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus arrived in Pakistan for talks with government and military leaders.

"We have launched a full-fledged operation on militant strongholds. We have confirmed reports of 20 deaths on the militant side," said a spokesman for the Mohmand Rifles paramilitary force.

The assault was focused on five border villages, known to be strongholds of al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban militants, the spokesman said.

Security forces were facing resistance from militants in hideouts in the villages and in nearby mountains, he said. An intelligence agency officer in the region said the bombing was intense and the death toll among militants could be higher.

Villagers told Reuters by telephone the soldiers were also using tanks and artillery in the fighting and at least 12 civilians had been wounded in air strikes.

Pakistani security forces have recently stepped up their operations in Mohmand, which is to the north of the city of Peshawar, to fight al Qaeda and Taliban militants fleeing a military offensive in the neighbouring Bajaur region, to the north.

Last week, more than 600 militants, many from Afghanistan, attacked a military camp and two nearby checkposts in Mohmand and six soldiers and 40 militants were killed, the military said.

The United States and Afghanistan have for years urged Pakistan to eliminate militant bases in lawless ethnic Pashtun tribal regions on the border from where Taliban infiltrate into Afghanistan to fight U.S.-led forces.

Intensified Pakistani efforts against the militants has led to what some officials call reverse infiltration, with some Taliban coming back into Pakistan to protect their rear bases from the Pakistani military.

Petraeus met President Asif Ali Zardari and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani for talks on regional security matters, a spokesman for the president said. He declined to elaborate. (Reporting by Izaz Mohmand; Writing by Kamran Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

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