PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Pakistani tribesmen avenging a mosque attack surrounded two militant strongholds and destroyed the homes of some Taliban commanders, an official said Monday as the death toll in the fighting hit 13.
As many as 1,600 tribesmen have joined a citizens' militia in Upper Dir district — an indication of rising anti-Taliban sentiment in Pakistan as the military pursues its offensive against the militant group in the nearby Swat Valley.
The militias, known as lashkars, were focusing on two villages known as Taliban strongholds, said Khaista Rehman, a local police chief. Officials said Sunday the tribesmen had managed to clear three other villages.
"An intense fight between the lashkar and the Taliban is still going on and the lashkar has destroyed 25 homes of Taliban commanders and their fighters in various villages," Rehman told The Associated Press by phone. "The Taliban had set up their offices in those villages but the local residents and the lashkar have attacked them, and we hope the lashkar will succeed."
The attack on the mosque Friday left 33 worshippers dead and wounded dozens more during prayers, angering residents of the Haya Gai area of Upper Dir district, where minor clashes with local militants have occurred for months.
Including 11 militants killed over the weekend, the insurgent death toll reached 13 Monday, senior police official Nawaz Khan said. Two tribesmen were wounded during Monday's fighting in the two villages.
The government has encouraged citizens to set up militias to oust Taliban fighters, especially in the regions that border Afghanistan where al-Qaida and the Taliban have hide-outs. But villagers' willingness to do so has often hinged on confidence that authorities will back them up if necessary.
With the army reporting advances against the Taliban in Swat — an operation that also reaches into Lower Dir district and has broad public support — that confidence appears to be growing.
Already, military officials say that as they've proceeded with the operation in Swat, local residents who have remained in the region have grown increasingly cooperative, providing tips on militants' hide-outs and more.
The month-old Swat offensive, the latest round in a valley that has experienced fighting for two years, is seen as a test of Pakistan's resolve to take on al-Qaida and Taliban fighters on its soil. The U.S. hopes the offensive will eliminate a potential sanctuary for militants implicated in attacks on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.
The military says more than 1,300 militants and 105 soldiers have died so far in the offensive, which has generally broad public support. The Taliban have threatened to stage attacks in major Pakistani cities in revenge for the Swat operation, and there has been a surge in attacks, mostly directed as security forces.
In the latest violence, a remote-controlled bomb exploded Monday near a police patrol in Peshawar, killing one officer, police said.
Also Monday, the leader of a Taliban faction at odds with Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud denounced Mehsud for staging attacks inside the country — a sign of rivalries within the collection of groups identified as the Taliban.
In a face-to-face interview with the AP, Qari Zainuddin urged tribal leaders to resist Mehsud and said his fighters — he claimed to have 3,000 — would stay neutral if the army launches an operation in South Waziristan, Mehsud's stronghold.
"Whatever Baitullah Mehsud and his associates are doing in the name of Islam is not a jihad, and in fact it is rioting and terrorism," Zainuddin said. "Islam stands for peace, not for terrorism."
Zainuddin's long-term motives remain unclear. He insisted he would resist any U.S. attempts to attack Pakistan.