- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

KHAR, Pakistan (AP) | Pakistani forces bombed dozens of houses on Sunday in a tribal region near the Afghan borders, according to officials and witnesses, in a military offensive that comes amid U.S. pressure for Pakistan to crack down on militants.

Days of clashes have reportedly killed at least 100 insurgents and nine paramilitary troops in the area, an insurgent stronghold considered a possible hiding place for al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.

Details have been scarce about the military offensive in the Bajur region.

Sardar Khan, a local police official, said two spells of aerial bombing destroyed about 40 houses in several villages. He said bombs also struck a school occupied by Taliban fighters in Loi Sam, a village that has been a key focus of the fighting.

Two area residents, Sher Zamin and Attaullah Khan, said army planes and helicopters dropped bombs and shells, apparently on suspected Taliban positions.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press reporter in Khar, the main town in Bajur, saw Taliban militants patrolling and staking out positions on roads with rocket launchers, heavy machine guns and, in some places, anti-aircraft guns.

There is increasing pressure from the West on Pakistan’s government to act against Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds in its frontier region with Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials have sought peace agreements in the border region in hopes of curbing Islamic extremists who have been blamed for a wave of suicide attacks across the country in the past year.

NATO contends that the cease-fire deals have allowed militants based in the frontier region to step up attacks in Afghanistan, while U.S. officials warn that al Qaeda leaders hiding along the border could be plotting another Sept. 11-style attack on the West.

The Bajur offensive came in the wake of a militant assault on Wednesday on an outpost manned by security forces. Officials said those initial clashes killed 25 militants and two troops.

Conflicting casualty figures were reported Sunday.

A paramilitary Frontier Corps statement said nine troops and at least 100 militants were killed in the past four days. But a military intelligence official placed the number of troops dead at 13. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Umar, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman who uses one name, said the militants had handed over 22 bodies belonging to security forces in the past three days after pleas from tribal elders.

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