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Pakistan attacks militants after bomb; 20 dead

PARACHINAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani jets and helicopter gunships killed 20 militants, according to residents and a military official on Monday, in an attack on a Taliban commander who claimed responsibility for a bombing last week.

Escalating militant violence has raised fears nuclear-armed Pakistan, a U.S. ally whose cooperation is vital for efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan, will fail to stop the spread of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Pakistani aircraft attacked three camps of Pakistani Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud in the Orakzai ethnic Pashtun tribal region, 170 km (100 miles) west of Islamabad, on Sunday, residents and a military official said.

“Our jets and helicopters attacked suspected hideouts of militants in the Ghiliju area and killed 20,” said a military official who declined to be identified.

Mehsud, an ally of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, claimed responsibility for a suicide car-bomb attack on a security convoy near the town of Kohat, close to Orakzai, on Saturday. The bomber killed 25 soldiers and two passers-by.

Hakimullah Mehsud said the suicide attack was in response to attacks by missile-firing U.S. drone aircraft on militant targets in northwest Pakistan. There was no information about Mehsud’s fate in Sunday’s air attacks.

Drones have killed about 350 people, including some mid-level al Qaeda leaders and many of their followers, in about 35 attacks since last year.

Pakistan’s central bank chief said on Monday unpredictable security conditions were clouding the outlook for an economy propped up since November by a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

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A resident of Ghiliju, Abdul Wakeel, said jets bombed a government school being used by Mehsud’s militants as a training camp. He put the death toll at 22.

Orakzai had been one of Pakistan’s most peaceful northwestern border regions, but Taliban are known to have infiltrated the area, as they have done elsewhere in the northwest.

Residents said helicopter gunships also attacked the Tabori and Dabori areas of Orakzai on Monday.

The government has struggled to come up with an effective strategy to deal with militancy, alternating in different areas between military offensives and peace deals.

President Asif Ali Zardari, under pressure from conservatives, signed a regulation last week imposing Islamic sharia law in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, to end Taliban violence there.

Critics, including the United States, say such peace deals only embolden militants and give them the time and space to become stronger.

Militants from Swat have already pushed into a nearby district, closer to Islamabad, and have vowed to introduce sharia law across the country.

On Monday, militants in Swat kidnapped four soldiers near the region’s main town of Mingora, police said.

Separately, militants abducted another two soldiers and an ambulance driver in Swat after they had delivered home the body of a soldier killed in Saturday’s attack on the convoy near Kohat, police and a security official said.

(For more stories on Pakistan and Afghanistan click on nISL322754)

Additional reporting by Junaid Khan in Swat; Writing by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Robert Birsel and Jerry Norton