KALAYA, Pakistan (Reuters) - More than 200 Pakistani Taliban attacked a security post in the northwestern region of Orakzai on Wednesday, triggering a clash in which at least 40 militants and two soldiers were killed, officials said.
The violence came as U.S. National Security Adviser Jim Jones and CIA director Leon Panetta were in Pakistan to urge the government to step up pressure on militant groups following a botched May 1 car-bombing in New York’s Time Square, a White House official said.
Pakistani forces have increased their attacks in the Orakzai and Khyber regions of the northwest in recent weeks after largely clearing Taliban strongholds in other areas.
The militants emerged out of forested mountains to attack the checkpoint in the Dobbari area soon after dawn, said a government official in the region, Nauman Khan.
“They first fired rocket-propelled grenades at our checkpost and then closed in and attacked,” said a military officer in the northwest who declined to be identified.
“We responded quickly and repulsed the attack after fierce fighting which lasted about three hours,” said the officer.
At least 40 militants as well as two soldiers were killed. Twenty-two soldiers were wounded, he said.
There was no independent confirmation of the casualty toll and Taliban spokesmen were not immediately available for comment.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan joined the U.S.-led campaign against militancy after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The militants intensified their attacks on the Pakistani state in mid-2007 after security forces cleared a radical mosque complex in the capital where militants had holed up with numerous weapons and refused to surrender.
A year ago, the security forces began a series of sustained offensives and managed to clear many fighters from the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, and the South Waziristan and Bajaur regions on the Afghan border.
In recent weeks, the army has turned its attention to the Orakzai and Khyber regions, where many fighters are believed to have taken refuge from the earlier offensives.
But despite losing ground, the militants have shown the ability to bounce back and have carried out a wave of bomb attacks, killing hundreds of people, mainly in the northwest.
Pakistani action against militants along the Afghan border is seen as crucial for U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
The United States wants Pakistan to go after Afghan Taliban factions who launch cross-border attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan from sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the border.
The United States has increased pressure on Pakistan to send troops into North Waziristan, an Afghan Taliban stronghold on the Afghan border, following the failed bombing in New York claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, who also operate in the region.
Jones and Panetta were visiting Pakistan to help make sure “all efforts are undertaken” to keep pressure on the militants, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said in Washington on Tuesday.
The two Americans met President Asif Ali Zardari and other leaders including army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
The visitors provided an update on the investigation into the attempted bombing in New York. A Pakistani American with suspected militant links in Pakistan has been accused of trying to set off a car bomb in Times Square.
“The talks covered measures that both countries are, and will be, taking to confront the common threat we face from extremists and prevent such potential attacks from occurring again,” Pakistan and the United States said in a joint statement.
Brennan acknowledged at a Washington conference differences with Islamabad about what next steps to take. But he said U.S. President Barack Obama was prepared to do “what we need to do to protect the American public”, suggesting Washington had not ruled out taking unilateral action in Pakistan if necessary.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in ISLAMABAD and Adam Entous in WASHINGTON; Writing by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Robert Birsel and Paul Tait