ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's military has dispatched helicopter gunships to the volatile northwest in support of thousands of angry tribesmen who have laid siege to a group of Taliban fighters, police said Tuesday.
The citizens' militia sprang up over the weekend to avenge a deadly suicide bombing at a mosque in Upper Dir district and appeared unwilling to stop pursuing the Islamist fighters, underscoring the rising anti-Taliban sentiment in much of Pakistan.
The tribesmen's numbers have steadily risen to more than 2,000, with residents of two villages and a town joining them Tuesday, area police official Atlas Khan said.
"People back in the villages, especially children, are fetching them food and other supplies. They are doing it because they think the fighters are fighting for their sake, they think it is their common war," Khan said.
He confirmed media reports that helicopter gunships struck two villages, Shatkas and Ghazi Gay, where the militants have strongholds, late Monday and Tuesday morning. Some of the Taliban were blocked Tuesday when they tried to get away to nearby Malik Bai village, which the tribesmen also encircled, police said.
The growing pressure on militants who have held sway in parts of Pakistan's northwest comes as the army bears down on their one-time sanctuary in the Swat Valley. Talk has also turned to the possibility of another operation against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the nearby tribal belt along the country's border with Afghanistan, something U.S. officials privately say they would like to see.
Upper Dir district police chief Ejaz Ahmad said some 200 militants, including foreigners, were putting up tough resistance, with sporadic fighting continuing.
"Reports we are getting say that the foreigners among them are around 20 to 25. Most of them are Afghans, but some of them are Central Asians and Arabs too," Ahmad said.
Ahmad said the militia was foiling the fighters' efforts to flee.
"Villagers have encircled them completely, and they cannot run away," he said.
Asked how long the fight might go on, the police chief said, "The militants are well-entrenched in their strongholds. The area is large and consists of tough terrain, which also has thick forests. I cannot say when, but it will take time to expel or kill all the militants completely."
Officials have said the Taliban carried out Friday's mosque bombing that killed 33 in the Upper Dir town of Haya Gai because they were angry that local tribesmen had resisted their moving into the area, where minor clashes between the two sides occurred for months.
At least 14 insurgents have died in the fighting since Saturday.
The military said in a statement Tuesday that 27 militants were killed and 22 were taken into custody across the region, including Swat, in the past 24 hours, with one soldier killed in an attack on a checkpoint and nine wounded.
The army's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, on Monday urged civilians to consider the kind of rule the Taliban was trying to impose — they stand accused of whippings and beheadings in the name of Islamic law in Swat — and join the fight against them.
"Citizens should ponder upon the way of life they are introducing, if that is acceptable to us," Abbas told the News1 television network. "If not, they have to raise a voice against them, they have to rise against them."
Washington strongly backs the Swat offensive, and officials have said privately they would like Pakistan to follow up by launching an operation in nearby South Waziristan tribal region, the main base for Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
The government has announced no plans to attack the area, where Al Qaeda fighters also are believed to be operating.