By Javed Hussain
PARACHINAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Air strikes killed at least 15 suspected militants in Pakistan's northwestern Shawal Valley on Thursday, intelligence officials said, a week after security forces moved in on Taliban strongholds there.
The deeply forested ravines of the valley are a key smuggling route between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and are dotted with Taliban bases used as launch pads for attacks on Pakistani forces.
In the latest air strikes, a local security commander and two intelligence officials said that 15 or 16 suspected militants were killed in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan.
The Taliban used to control all of North Waziristan, a mountainous region that includes the Shawal Valley and runs along the Afghan border. But the Pakistani military launched an operation there last June and has recaptured most of it.
NATO forces had long urged Pakistan to carry out such an offensive, saying Taliban safe havens in Pakistan were being used to attack NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
Now locals believe that the military is gearing up for an operation in Shawal Valley, where the Taliban still freely operates.
The area is a stronghold of Khan "Sajna" Said, a leader of a Taliban faction whose name was added to a sanctions list of "specially designated global terrorists" by U.S. authorities last year.
There have been a number of air strikes in the Shawal Valley over the past week and two drone attacks, but no sign of a large ground offensive.
Most phone lines to the area have been cut and military roadblocks curtail civilian movement.
(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Hafiz Wazir in Wana; Editing by Mike Collett-White)