PESHAWAR, Pakistan – More than a thousand armed tribesman seeking revenge for a mosque attack surrounded two Taliban strongholds and destroyed the homes of Taliban fighters — including some commanders — in Pakistan's northwest, an official said Monday.
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.
At least 11 militants had died as of Sunday afternoon, district police Chief Ejaz Ahmad said. He said about 200 militants were putting up a tough fight but were surrounded by the villagers.
The government has encouraged citizens to set up militias to oust Taliban fighters, especially in the regions that border Afghanistan where Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 suicide attacks in major Pakistani cities in revenge for the Swat operation.