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DISASTERS

Airstrikes kill 10 militants in NW Pakistan

PARACHINAR, Pakistan (AP) — Fighter jets pounded militant hide-outs in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing 10 suspected insurgents as part of a military operation that has eliminated more than 300 fighters in the last three weeks, an official said.

The strikes came as the Pakistani military is holding its largest military exercise in two decades in southeastern Pakistan. The monthlong operation, which started Saturday, will involve some 20,000 troops backed by tanks, artillery and air power, the army said in a statement. It is likely intended as a show of muscle as the military battles a violent Taliban-led insurgency.

The military launched its latest offensive in March to rout members of the Pakistani Taliban from the Orakzai tribal region. Many militants fled there after the army staged a large ground offensive last year against the group's main stronghold in South Waziristan, also close to the Afghan border.

Sunday's airstrikes destroyed three hide-outs in the Sangram area of Orakzai, said Samiullah Khan, a local administrator. They came a day after similar strikes killed nearly 100 suspected militants in the Orakzai and Khyber tribal areas, according to officials.

The army has described its operations in Orakzai, Khyber and neighboring Kurram as part of a final push against the Pakistani Taliban, characterizing the group as on its heels.

But Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq denied that Sunday, saying the military has exaggerated its success against the group.

"Our leadership and all key commanders are alive and active," Tariq told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. "Our losses are very small compared to what is claimed by the army."

Tariq said the Taliban plans to increase its attacks in the coming months now that winter has ended.

Fighting has historically dropped off in both Pakistan and Afghanistan during the winter, when heavy snowfall makes movement in the rugged, mountainous border area difficult.

Tariq said the Taliban have already resumed attacks against the army in South Waziristan in recent days, inflicting "massive damage." Army officials could not be reached for comment.

Claims by the Taliban and the government in the tribal areas are almost impossible to independently verify because journalists are prohibited from traveling there.

Elsewhere in the northwest, gunmen ambushed a police patrol on Sunday as it was crossing a bridge in the town of Mardan, killing one officer and wounding two others, police official Jawed Khan said.

Authorities also found the body of a second police officer at a checkpoint several miles (kilometers) from the ambush site. His throat had been cut, Khan said.

Mardan is in North West Frontier Province, an area where the military has battled a persistent Taliban insurgency.

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Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.