By Ali Shah
SHALTALO, Pakistan (Reuters) - The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility on Friday for a cross-border attack on a security checkpost that appeared to signal that the group was adopting a new strategy of carrying out large-scale attacks on government and army targets.
In the pre-dawn raid on Wednesday in the village of Shaltalo in Dir region, up to 400 militants crossed over from Afghanistan in the raid which triggered more than 24 hours of clashes, the government said.
Twenty-seven Pakistani forces were killed and 45 militants died in the clashes in the northwest, security officials said. There were contradictory accounts of casualties and how many militants fought.
"Up to 40 to 50 of our fighters took part in the operation," Ehsanullah Ashen, spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan), told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location. "None of our fighters were killed."
The TTP has previously brought fighters from across the porous border with Afghanistan -- where it has allies -- to attack Pakistani security forces, but none were on the same scale as the Dir operation.
Deputy TTP leader Fakir Mohammed said the group with close ties to al Qaeda had changed strategy and would now focus on large-scale attacks only on state targets like the one in Dir.
"Our new strategy of launching big attacks on military installations was aimed at causing demoralization in the ranks of the security forces and tiring of the government," he told Pakistan's The News newspaper from what he said was a location somewhere in Afghanistan.
REVENGE FOR BIN LADEN'S DEATH
A new TTP gameplan may complicate the army's efforts to weaken the group, which has stepped up suicide bombings to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces in a Pakistani town on May 2.
Since then, the movement has attacked paramilitary cadets, a naval base, a U.S. consulate convoy and other targets, challenging government assertions that army offensives against militants have succeeded.
After bin Laden's death, the United States reiterated its call for Pakistan to crack down harder on militants, especially those who cross over to Afghanistan to attack Western forces.
The lawless frontier is home to some of the world's most dangerous militant groups, who are intricately linked and cross back and forth across fairly easily to carry out operations.
Pakistan's army will have to contend with a new TTP strategy at a time when it is still reeling from the bin Laden fiasco.
The U.S. raid opened the agency up to international suspicion it was complicity in hiding the al Qaeda leader, and to domestic criticism for failing to detect or stop the U.S. team.
Pakistan, dependent on billions of dollars in aid from its strategic ally Washington, is under more pressure than ever to tackle militancy because of the discovery bin Laden was living close to Islamabad.
As the Dir operation showed, it won't be easy.
On Friday, helicopter gunships pounded hilltops in assaults on the militants who were still in the area. Soldiers stood near a building pockmarked with large bullet holes from the fighting. Houses and schools were burned out.
Most Pakistanis are opposed to the Taliban's austere interpretation of Islam and its violent methods.
"We also want to limit civilian casualties. Our ultimate objective is to force the government to end its alliance with the United States," said deputy TTP leader Mohammad.
Pakistanis are also frustrated by the apparent inability of the government to improve security in the nuclear-armed South Asian country, which has failed to create economic opportunities to keep young men from flocking to militant groups.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on militants, said the fighters involved in the Dir operation had probably fled to Afghanistan to escape government offensives.
Pakistan called on Thursday for stern action against militants in Afghanistan by Afghan and U.S.-led foreign forces to prevent further cross-border operations.
Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir conveyed Pakistan's "strong concern" to the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan.
"We are in close contact with the Afghan Taliban. Both of us want to get rid of America and its slaves. Our activities will continue," said Ehsan.
(Additional reporting by Sahibzada Bahauddin in Khar and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Alex Richardson)