Pakistan troops regain key tunnel in northwest

KOHAT, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani forces recaptured a road tunnel leading to the volatile tribal belt on the Afghan border on Sunday after killing around two dozen pro-Taliban militants in a fierce battle, the military said.

Militants captured the Japanese-built tunnel on the main road link between Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province, and the tribal belt during fighting near Darra Adam Kheil tribal region on Saturday.

The clashes erupted on Friday after militants seized four trucks carrying ammunition and other supplies for the troops.

“After fierce fighting, the security forces have cleared the area of miscreants and are in control of Kohat tunnel and surrounding areas,” a military statement said, referring to the garrison town situated on the southern end of the tunnel.

“Reportedly 24 miscreants have been killed, many have fled leaving behind huge quantity of arms and ammunition.” Around 45 militants and two soldiers were killed in earlier clashes.

The statement did not say whether there were any losses on the troops’ side.

Violence has spread across Pakistan, mainly in Frontier Province, after an army assault on a militant mosque in the capital Islamabad in July last year. Hundreds of people, including soldiers, have been killed in suicide and bomb attacks since then.


But analysts said fighting in Darra Adam Kheil on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Peshawar, posed a new challenge for President Pervez Musharraf, a ally in the U.S.-led campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Troops are already battling militants loyal to a Taliban commander, Baitallah Mehsud, in South Waziristan tribal region, a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban militants.

The government says Mehsud is linked to the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a gun and bomb attack last month.

“Militants’ action in Darra Adam Kheil shows that they want to open new fronts to put pressure on the army and to ease pressure on Baitullah Mehsud,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a newspaper editor and expert on tribal areas.

Mehsud, who has also been blamed for a string of suicide bomb attacks, ordered his fellow Taliban commanders on Friday to step up attacks on Pakistani security forces, according to a spokesman for the militant commander.

Known as haven for smugglers, the small dusty town of Darra Adam Kheil until recently had been relatively free of the militant violence.

But the militants intensified their activities in the town in recent months with attacks on music shops, and an intelligence agent was killed there last year.

In South Waziristan, the military said a heavy exchange of fire took place between the forces and the military in some areas while troops had launched a mop-up operation in several other areas from where militants had been driven out.

Around 150 militants and more than 20 government soldiers have been killed in South Waziristan in week-long clashes with Mehsud fighters.

Additional reporting and writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Myra MacDonald