ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani security forces pounded militant positions near strategic areas in a tribal region bordering Afghanistan, killing 25 suspected insurgents in a new round of a military offensive that also left three soldiers dead.
The battle in the Bajur tribal region comes as the nuclear-armed Muslim nation struggles to recover from a massive suicide attack at the Marriott Hotel in the capital. Police said Saturday the death toll from the blast a week ago in Islamabad stood at 54, one higher than previously reported.
On Friday, security forces cleared militant compounds near Bajur's Rashakai and Loi Sam areas, army spokesman Maj. Murad Khan said, confirming the death toll. He said late Friday that two of the three soldiers killed were officers.
The weekslong military operation in Bajur has already killed more than 1,000 militants and some 66 soldiers, and officials say it could be another two months before the militant stronghold is stabilized.
American officials say Bajur and other tribal regions are sanctuaries for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters involved in attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. has praised Pakistan for its Bajur offensive, saying it has helped reduce violence on the Afghan side of the porous border.
Pakistani officials say the insurgents had a stranglehold on Bajur prior to the offensive, basically setting up a parallel government. The militants converted schools into Islamic courts and imposed taxes on timber and marble, the region's two main industries.
"All families were asked to give their one male child to this (militant) movement, and this was done forcibly, and if somebody doesn't do it, his house would be destroyed," said Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.
In a briefing to reporters visiting the region Friday on an army-organized trip, Khan showed photos of militant tunnel systems and trenches and said Bajur had become a "center of gravity" for all sorts of insurgents from throughout the region.
"My timeframe for Bajur is anything from between one-and-a-half to two months to bring about stability," Khan said.
The Bajur offensive, which began in early August, and ongoing military action in the northwest's Swat Valley have been coupled with a string of suicide bombings that the Pakistani Taliban claimed was revenge.
Analysts and experts say the Pakistani Taliban or Al Qaeda could have been behind the Marriott blast in Islamabad as well, though the top Pakistani Taliban commander has denied a role.
So far, only a little-known group calling itself Fedayeen al-Islam, or Islam Commandos, has claimed credit, warning Pakistan to stop cooperating with the U.S. war on terrorism.
Khadim Hussain, an Islamabad police official, said the latest death toll was 54. At least two Americans were killed in the blast, and a U.S. State Department contractor remains missing, the American embassy said. The blast wounded nearly 270 people.
Since the explosion, foreign aid missions and diplomats in Pakistan have reviewed security measures. On Friday, a group of diplomats met with Rehman Malik, the head of Pakistan's Interior Ministry, to get a briefing on enhanced security measures for their missions and personnel.
United Nations officials also met, and decided not to change their offices' current security status. A change by the U.N. — such as sending home family members or nonessential personnel — could have prompted other foreign-based groups to consider pulling people out as well.
The U.S. Embassy on Saturday said it would reopen its visa and consular services on Monday after a two-day suspension.