Five Frontier Corps personnel and 37 militants were killed when Baitullah Mehsud-led militants attacked yet another fort in the South Waziristan Agency (SWA) on Tuesday.
Fighter aircraft also pounded suspected militant positions in the militancy-plagued tribal agency, eyewitnesses said. Military Spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas, who is also the Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), confirmed the attack on the historic Ladha Fort and the adjoining observation posts.
He, however, said the security forces based in the British-era fort repulsed the attack by resorting to mortar and artillery shelling, killing 37 suspected militants. The tribal, as well as official sources, told The News that hundreds of militants first attacked the observation posts set up outside the Ladha Fort in the wee hours of Tuesday and after overrunning the protective posts, started firing on the compound being used as a military base by the forces.
The militants used heavy weapons in the attack, causing limited damage to the security compound, sources said. According to officials, the gunbattle between the security forces and the militants continued till 6 am, leaving five soldiers dead and seven others injured.
Maj Gen Athar Abbas said the ferocious fighting between the soldiers and the tribal militants lasted three to four hours. Later, Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft were seen flying over the volatile region and pounding the suspected hideouts of Baitullah Mehsud-led fighters.
Two warplanes bombarded the alleged militant locations in Saam, Kacha Langar Khel, Makeen and Ladha areas, four times during the day, but there were no details about the losses suffered by the militants and the local villagers.
Also, the security forces based in Jandola, Ladha and Razmak military camps shelled the suspected positions of tribal fighters. Maulana Esamuddin, who played a key role in brokering the Srarogha peace accord between the government and Baitullah Mehsud in February 2005, told The News that fighter planes targeted innocent people in his hometown of Makeen.
The Maulana, who like many of his fellow villagers shifted to Tank due to the deteriorating law and order situation, said residents in Makeen told him that a number of houses had been damaged in Tuesday’s bombing and artillery shelling.
Militants, it may be recalled, had attacked and for the first time captured Srarogha Fort in the militancy-hit South Waziristan tribal region a few days back. Majority of the soldiers based in the fort were either killed or kidnapped by the militants.
On the other hand, Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for Baitullah Mehsud and his Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, called The News from an undisclosed location and claimed responsibility for attacking the fort.
He claimed 10 FC men were killed during the clash while 13 others, including three Pakistan Army commandos and 10 FC personnel, were kidnapped. Maj Gen Athar Abbas rejected his claim and said only three soldiers were deployed there.
Omar threatened they would soon expand their activities from the tribal areas to the rest of the country and would launch severe attacks on Islamabad and other big cities, if the military operation was not stopped in which, he claimed, innocent women and children were being targeted. "Our attacks would destabilise the country and the government would find it hard to control the situation," he warned.
Also, Maulvi Omar took responsibility for killing Director Intelligence Bureau (IB) Nisar Ali Khan, who had been killed by unknown assailants at his native village Sreekh Batagram in Shabqadar Tehsil of Charsadda district three days ago.
"We killed him because people like him associated with intelligence agencies pass on false information about religious people, which later puts innocent people in trouble. It was because of their false information that innocent people suffered in Swat, Bajaur, Waziristan and other areas," explained the militants’ spokesman.
Meanwhile, Mehsud tribes announced complete shutter down strike today (Wednesday) in Tank as a protest against the military operation and blockade of roads to South Waziristan. "There will be a complete shutter down strike. We want to tell the rulers that all the people living in Waziristan are not militants. There is only five per cent support for the militants but still the military is punishing the whole population," remarked Maulana Esamuddin. “This is unjust and should be stopped.”