AS-Pakistan 4thLd-Writethru 07-21
Military: 56 dead in clashes in northwest Pakistan
Eds: UPDATES with official saying major bomb attack foiled in northwest.
AP Photo PES111, PES108, PES105, PES110
By RIAZ KHAN
Associated Press Writer
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Three days of clashes between security forces and militants in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border left more than 56 militants and six soldiers dead, the military said Tuesday.
There was no way to independently confirm the casualty figures because access to the affected regions was restricted for journalists.
The vast majority of the deaths occurred during a two-day operation Sunday and Monday in the Maidan area of Lower Dir, a region bordering the Swat Valley where the army has been wrapping up an offensive against Taliban militants.
More than 50 militants died in the clashes, said Maj. Fazlur Rahman, spokesman for the paramilitary Frontier Corps. The army also confirmed the toll.
Rahman said the operation was aimed at clearing pockets of resistance in Maidan, and those killed included militants who fled the Swat area during the army’s offensive.
In a statement, the army also said it arrested five militants disguised in burqas who tried to flee a search operation conducted in the previous 24 hours in Swat. Five other militants and three soldiers were killed in the latest clashes in the valley.
Another military search operation found the bodies of 10 suspected militants in a cave in Swat, the army said in Tuesday’s statement.
The violence shows security remains fragile in the northwest, even as thousands of refugees head back to Swat as part of a government repatriation program for the roughly 2 million people uprooted by the military campaign that started in late April.
The military has said it killed more than 1,700 suspected militants in Swat and surrounding districts, but the toll has been impossible to verify independently. Pakistani authorities have not given any figures for civilian casualties.
Pakistan’s military is also preparing a similar campaign in the South Waziristan tribal region targeting the Pakistani Taliban chief, Baitullah Mehsud.
The U.S. supports the operations, saying Islamabad must eliminate militant safe havens for its own stability’s sake as well as to lessen the threat those fighters pose to the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan.
The Swat campaign drove some 2 million people from their homes, according to the United Nations. The military recently declared the region largely cleared of militants, and thousands have been returning home.
On Monday, the government officially closed two camps near the city of Mardan that had housed about 20,000 people, said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for North West Frontier Province.
Elsewhere in the northwest Tuesday, security forces seized a pickup truck rigged with a 1,500-pound (700 kilogram) bomb and arrested two men, averting a potentially devastating attack, local government official Fazal Mahmood said.
The men and the vehicle were ensnared at a security checkpoint in the Khyber tribal region, Mahmood said, adding the truck appeared primed for an attack. Officials were questioning the suspects to determine their target and who had sent them.
"A possible tragedy has been avoided with these arrests," Mahmood said.
Pakistan has suffered a series of bombings in recent years, many targeting markets, hotels and police checkpoints. Some recent attacks have been retaliation for the Swat offensive.
In September 2008, a massive suicide truck bomb killed 54 people and wounded more than 250 at Islamabad’s Marriott hotel.