Pakistan forces back militants near Afghan border

AP News
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Posted: Jun 03, 2011 3:48 PM
Pakistan forces back militants near Afghan border

Pakistani helicopters and artillery on Friday forced back militants who crossed over from Afghanistan this week and triggered battles that have killed scores of people, an official said. The government demanded that NATO and Afghan troops do more to control insurgents on their side of the long, porous border.

The Pakistani Taliban, the country's most prominent militant group, claimed responsibility for the incursion in a telephone call to reporters. If true, the group's presence in Afghanistan's Kunar province marks a new demonstration of the instability of the border area 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan said between 40 and 50 fighters took part in the raid, much less than the 400 claimed by the government. He said just two of the militants died and that many Pakistani troops were killed.

The insurgents entered Pakistan's Upper Dir region from Kunar province on Wednesday. They attacked a security checkpoint, villages and schools, according to the Pakistani government.

Regional administrator Ghulam Mohammad Khan said the militants were retreating Friday and under Pakistani attack in one district.

As of Thursday night, 25 soldiers, 35 militants and three civilians had died in the clashes, Khan said. He had no information about casualties from Friday's fighting. Reporters were blocked from traveling to the scene of the fighting.

A Pakistani government statement late Thursday said the foreign secretary had "stressed the need for stern action by the Afghan army, U.S. and NATO/ISAF forces in the area against militants and their hideouts in Afghanistan and against organizational support for the militants."

Beyond emphasizing the difficulties of fighting an enemy that pays no attention to borders, the battle hints at challenges ahead for the U.S. and Pakistan when Washington begins withdrawing troops from Afghanistan later this year. Pakistan maintains that NATO already needs more troops along the Afghan side of the border.

In the past, NATO and Pakistani forces have staged coordinated "hammer and anvil" operations against militants on the border, but relations between Washington and Islamabad have hit a particularly rough patch, especially since the unilateral American raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2.

Even so, NATO officials say that border cooperation has not suffered as a result of the chill in ties.

Elsewhere along the border, a volley of American drone-fired missiles hit three compounds in a northwestern insurgent stronghold, killing at least four people, intelligence officials said.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy, did not say who was killed.

America has launched several hundred drone strikes targeting militants. They are intensely unpopular among many Pakistanis and are publicly criticized by the government. Though they are believed to have tacit consent from the Pakistani military, relations have soured this year.

U.S. officials do not comment on the CIA-led program but privately say the attacks are highly accurate.

This week, Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, who commands Pakistani troops in the tribal regions, said the attacks "were nothing to do with me" and said he did not know whether the missiles were killing militants.

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Associated Press writer Rasool Dawar contributed to this report.