Backed by attack helicopters and powerful artillery guns, the Pakistani Army on Tuesday launched a new offensive near the Khyber tribal region killing 21 militants and capturing six others in an operation to blunt the Taliban's [ Images ] capability to launch suicide attacks in Peshawar.
Ground forces of paramilitary Frontier Corps spearheaded the assault to strike the militants of the banned Lashkar-e-Islam group, a Taliban ally in the restive Bara region through which passes the main highway to Afghan capital Kabul.
Fifteen militants were killed and six apprehended in heavy fighting in the Bara area as forces entered a number of villages to hunt down the Lashkar-e-Islam group. A senior army officer said the offensive was aimed to capture mountain heights and strategic locations from the militants who have been using these to mount suicide attacks on Peshawar.
The provincial capital of the NWFP and surrounding areas have suffered a wave of bombings recently that has killed more than 300 people.
Further north in the Khar region of the lawless NWFP, the troops imposed curfew and counterattacked the militants after 50 Taliban fighters attacked army and frontier corps check-posts in Landi Kotal, at the base of the famous Khyber Pass.
Taliban fighters armed with rockets and bazookas exchanged heavy fire with the army for over three hours in which six militants were killed, a local provincial official said.
The troops destroyed several hideouts and 12 cars and seized a cache of arms and ammunition. Search and clearance operations were underway at several places, the Frontier Corps said.
Two civilians were killed and four including two women wounded when rockets and machine-gun fire hit nearby houses, officials said.
Over 1,000 security personnel and heavy artillery moved into Bara on Sunday after militants blew up a school on Saturday night, taking to four the number of attacks on educational institutions in the past three weeks.
As the troops took up positions, announcements were made on loudspeakers asking people to stay indoors.
The Taliban attack and the army reprisals in the Khyber belt were signs of new violence away from the main battlefield in South Waziristan.
An army spokesman said the new attack was launched as intelligence reports linked militants in the area to recent attacks in the north-western city of Peshawar.
The spokesman said there was a lull in the fighting in the Waziristan region. "There was no major troop movement or activity by fighter aircraft due to bad weather."
In a statement, the army said nine militants were killed in the operation during the last 24-hours.