HANGU, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani soldiers backed by jets and helicopters clashed with Taliban in the northwestern Orakzai region on Sunday, killing more than 20 militants, government officials said.
The fighting came a day after fighter jets bombed a militant stronghold in the neighboring Khyber region on the Afghan border, killing 45 people, according to militant sources.
“Three Taliban hideouts have been destroyed and 12 militants have been killed in Orakzai,” Khaista Gul, a regional government official, told Reuters.
Hours later, security forces clashed with militants near Kalaya, the main town of Orakzai, and killed 11 militants.
“The government forces have captured some important Taliban positions in the area,” government official Sajjad Khan said.
Orakzai and Khyber are two of Pakistan’s seven semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun tribal regions, where militants and their al Qaeda allies fighting both the Afghan and Pakistani governments entrenched themselves after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001.
Security forces have stepped up assaults in the northwest over the past year, largely clearing militants from the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, and the South Waziristan and Bajaur regions on the Afghan border.
Security forces are now focusing on other areas, in particular Orakzai and Khyber, where militants who fled the earlier sweeps have taken refuge.
The security forces’ successes have eased fears that nuclear-armed Pakistan, a vital ally for the United States as it struggles to stabilize Afghanistan, was sliding into chaos.
Similarly, hopes for an easing of destabilizing political wrangling were raised last week when the National Assembly unanimously passed a set of constitutional reforms curbing the powers of unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari.
Optimism has been reflected in Pakistan’s stock market, where the main index is at levels not seen since 2008, supported by foreign buying.
Net foreign portfolio inflows were $113 million in March, the second highest monthly inflow ever.
But the militants have shown they are still capable of striking at high profile targets in heavily guarded areas.
Militants attacked the U.S. consulate in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Monday last week, killing five people, hours after a suicide bomber killed 48 people at political rally in a nearby district.
A militant commander said on Saturday that civilians were also among 45 people killed in attacks in a border area between Orakzai and Khyber but military officials denied it.
A senior military official said the jets attacked militants as they were trying to sneak into Orakzai from Khyber to attack a security checkpost.
The main route for Western forces’ supplies trucked from Karachi port to landlocked Afghanistan winds through the Khyber Pass and militants have frequently attacked convoys there.
Orakzai is a stronghold of Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief who is widely believed to have been killed in a missile strike by pilotless U.S. drone aircraft in South Waziristan in January.
Additional reporting and writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Alex Richardson and Elizabeth Fullerton