Asia Crisis

Pakistani troops attack militants in scenic valley

MINGORA, Pakistan, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships killed 20 pro-Taliban militants on Thursday, the military said, as security forces stepped up efforts to drive Islamist rebels out of a northwestern valley.

Residents of the scenic Swat valley and a security official said more than 20 civilians had been killed as the army fired artillery at militant positions.

An army spokesman said he had no information about civilian casualties but he said 20 militants had been killed in three clashes on Thursday and 33 had been killed the previous day.

"Gunship helicopters destroyed a (militant) checkpost ... Security forces also targeted the militants' ammunition and mortar positions," said spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad.

The valley in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) with its mountains, trout streams and the country's only ski resort had until recently been a tourist destination.

But militants, including up to 800 foreigners, have infiltrated from strongholds on the Afghan border to support a radical cleric while the government's attention has been focused on President Pervez Musharraf's attempt to secure another term.

Nearly 250 people have been killed in recent weeks in clashes between the security forces and followers of hardline cleric Mullah Fazlullah.

The army launched a fresh push this week to clear out the militants, with heavy fighting to the east of the valley's main town of Mingora.


Residents and a security official said civilians had been killed in Pagorai Miankalay village of Shangla district, in firing that began overnight, when militants attacked security forces and the army responded with mortars.

"According to our information, nearly two dozen civilians have been killed," said a security official who declined to be identified.

Village resident Musa Khan said by telephone: "Announcements are being made from mosque loudspeakers for help to remove the dead and the wounded."

Security forces have been battling militants along the Afghan border, especially in the North and South Waziristan regions, in recent years and hundreds of soldiers and militants have been killed.

Violence, including a wave of suicide attacks, has escalated since July, when the army raided a mosque complex in the capital, Islamabad, where militants linked to Waziristan and Swat had set up a stronghold well stocked with arms and ammunition.

Army chief Musharraf, a close U.S. ally, cited rising militant violence as one of the reasons for his decision to impose a nationwide state of emergency on Nov. 3.

In a separate incident, a roadside blast near a military convoy killed a paramilitary soldier and wounded two in the Bannu district of NWFP, a security official said. (Additional reporting by Haji Mujtaba; writing by Augustine Anthony; editing by Robert Birsel and Roger Crabb)