PARACHINAR, Pakistan – Helicopter gunships shelled militant hide-outs in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing 10 suspected fighters after the Taliban murdered two paramilitary soldiers at an outpost in the area.
The attack on the outpost in Mohmand, one of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal areas, was the latest staged by militants in retaliation for an army offensive against the Taliban's main stronghold in Pakistan's northwest.
Militants hope the attacks will weaken the army's resolve and have shown a growing willingness to target innocent civilians in an attempt to weaken public support for the offensive.
A suicide car bomber attacked a crowded market in northwestern Pakistan on Tuesday, killing 26 people, the fourth such attack in about a month.
Pakistani officials have blamed such attacks on the Taliban, but the group has reportedly denied being behind at least some of the blasts, sparking conspiracy theories and making it more difficult for the government to convert public anger into greater support for its crackdown on militants.
"I think the government itself is making these blasts, or the Taliban," Muzamal Khan told AP Television News as he attended Wednesday's funeral for the victims of the latest market bombing. "But the Taliban is saying we are not involved in these blasts, so it means the government is involved or foreign countries like India or Afghans who live here illegally or American spies."
Others blame the violence on the government's alliance with the United States, which supports the army offensive in South Waziristan because Pakistan's tribal belt is home to many Taliban and Al Qaeda militants involved in attacks on Western troops across the border in Afghanistan.
"I think if foreign policy changes, and we finish our friendship with America and infidels and stop military operations which are going on in different places, then this bombing problem will solve itself," said Mulana Gohar Shah, another man attending Wednesday's funeral.
Dozens of militants armed with automatic weapons and rocket launchers attacked the paramilitary outpost just outside Bai Zai town in Mohmand before dawn Wednesday morning, said an intelligence officer and local government official. Two soldiers were killed in the attack and three injured, they said.
The bodies of the two dead soldiers that officials found Wednesday had been decapitated, said another local government official, Maqsood Khan. Thirty-two soldiers, many of them from a nearby outpost, are still missing, said Khan. He declined to say whether they had fled or were captured.
But the Taliban spokesman in the area, Ikramullah Mohmand, who claimed responsibility for the attack, said the group had not taken any prisoners. He said the Taliban had killed 10 soldiers during the assault. The conflicting claims could not be independently verified.
The militant hide-outs that were shelled by helicopter gunships following the attack were located in Bai Zai, said the intelligence officer and local government official. The assault killed 10 suspected militants, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The Pakistani government has repeatedly said militant attacks will not deter it from following through with its operation in South Waziristan.
"We are fully committed and this is our resolve to eliminate terrorism completely," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told reporters Wednesday in Islamabad. "This is a challenge for us and we accept the challenge as this is the primary duty of the government to protect the life and property of the people."
Pakistan's army has pitted some 30,000 troops against up to 8,000 militants in South Waziristan, including many Uzbeks and other foreign insurgents who have long taken refuge in the lawless tribal areas.
The soldiers have been battling militants in three key Taliban bases in the region over the past few days. The latest fighting has killed seven militants an injured two soldiers, an army statement said Wednesday.
The information is nearly impossible to verify independently since Pakistan has blocked access to the battle zone.