Islamabad: Thirty terrorists and 23 soldiers have been killed during fighting between security forces and pro-Taliban rebels in the lawless Khyber tribal region of Pakistan, according to a media report on Monday. The fighting erupted after troops, including Special Services Group commandos, launched a "decisive operation" against terrorists in Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency.
Twenty-three soldiers, including commandoes, and an unspecified number of members of a tribal lashkar or militia had died in clashes over the weekend, official sources were quoted as saying on the website of the Dawn newspaper. Around 30 terrorists had died and scores more injured in the fighting during the weekend.
The report said "scores of militants" had died in the offensive launched last week. There was no official word on the latest developments in Khyber Agency.
Late Sunday night, at least 10 terrorists were killed in a clash with security forces in Akka Khel area of Bara sub-division, the report said. On Friday, the media arm of the Frontier Corps had confirmed that four security personnel and 14 terrorists had died in clashes.
The sources said the SSG commandos, regular army troops and Frontier Corps personnel are battling to root out the "last pockets of resistance" in Tirah Valley, especially on the border with Orakzai tribal region. The area was described as a bastion of the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and foreign fighters.
The offensive had entered a "crucial phase" after terrorist positions were targeted by helicopter gunships and jet fighters. Ground troops and members of local militias were clearing the area.
Artillery and mortar shelling has been intensified as ground forces had begun advancing and conducting door-to-door searches to clear pockets of resistance. Unnamed security experts indicated there would be a "decisive strike" in Tirah Valley as the Taliban and its ally, Lashkar-e-Islam, had begun consolidating their positions in the region. The two groups pose a serious threat to the settled areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, including the provincial capital of Peshawar.
Mehmood Shah, the former secretary of security for the tribal belt, said the Tirah Valley would become a problem for the administration if it was not cleared of terrorists. He said terrorists from Bara area and Taliban fighters from Dara Admakhel had shifted to Tirah Valley to regroup.
Recent clashes between the pro-government Ansar-ul-Islam and Taliban, which is being supported by the Lashkar-e-Islam, have left scores of terrorists dead. This infighting provided an environment conducive to an offensive by security forces.
Another factor that could help the security forces is an internal rift in the Taliban after the death of commander Tariq Afridi. There is a rift between the followers of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Hakimullah Mehsud and Afridi's loyalists.