Militants take villagers hostage in Pakistan

Dozens of militants coming from Afghanistan took scores of villagers hostage in Pakistan's northwest Thursday, sparking fighting that killed at least 10 people, Pakistani officials said.

In the eastern part of the country, Taliban gunmen opened fire on a compound housing policemen, killing nine of them, officials said.

The militants who staged the cross-border attack appeared to be targeting members of an anti-Taliban militia in Kitkot village near Pakistan's Bajur tribal area, said Tariq Khan, a local government official.

Pakistan has railed against Afghan and NATO forces for not doing enough to stop Afghanistan-based militants from launching cross-border attacks, but has received little sympathy. The U.S. and Afghan governments have long complained that Pakistan allows sanctuary to militants fighting in Afghanistan.

The militants who attacked Thursday came from Afghanistan's Kunar province and took hundreds of villagers hostage, including anti-Taliban militiamen, said Khan.

The Pakistani army surrounded the village and killed eight militants, prompting the insurgents to retaliate by killing shooting to death two militiamen, he added.

Soldiers have retrieved scores of villagers, but dozens more are still held by the militants or trapped in their homes by the fighting, said Khan and two security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The army called in gunship helicopters for support but have not used them yet for fear of civilian casualties, said Khan.

The information could not be independently verified because the area is largely off-limits to reporters.

The police targeted in the eastern city of Lahore were training to become prison guards, said Habibur Rehman, the chief of police in Punjab province, where Lahore is the capital.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for police torture of their fighters in prison. He spoke to The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.

In addition to the police who were killed, eight were also wounded, said Salman Saddiq, a government official.

One of the wounded, Shafqat Imran, said that eight to 10 attackers, who had their faces hidden behind hoods, stormed into the compound and started shooting randomly. They shouted "God is great," then shot the policemen one by one, said Imran, speaking from a hospital bed.

The police who were attacked were recruited from northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a one-time base for the Taliban, and were brought to Lahore for training, said Rehman.

The Pakistani military launched a massive offensive against the Taliban in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Swat Valley in 2009, and many militants were captured and imprisoned.

The leader of the Taliban in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, escaped and is believed to be based in eastern Afghanistan, where he has been sending fighters back across the border to attack northwest Pakistan.

The Pakistani Taliban have killed thousands of soldiers, police and civilians over the past few years, declaring war on the government to get it to break ties with the United States and establish Islamic law throughout the country.

The government is also facing a decades-long insurgency by nationalists in southwest Baluchistan province who demand greater autonomy and a larger share of the province's natural resources.

Officials discovered the bodies of six coal miners and a doctor Thursday who went missing on July 7 and are suspected of having been killed by Baluch separatists, said senior government official Naseebullah Bazai.

The latest violence came against the backdrop of serious political instability in Pakistan.

The country's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf to reopen an old corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari, a demand that the premier's predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, ignored, leading the judges to convict him of contempt of court and remove him from office.

Aiming to avoid an identical fate for Ashraf, the ruling coalition pushed a new law through parliament this week that provides the prime minister and other senior government officials with greater protection against being charged with contempt. Zardari signed the bill Thursday, shortly before the Supreme Court hearing, said presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar.

The opposition criticized the new law as undermining the court's authority, and the judges have indicated they may strike it down as unconstitutional.

The judges told Attorney General Arfan Qadir during a court session Thursday that the prime minister has until July 25 to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a graft case against Zardari that dates back to the late 1990s, said Fawad Chaudhry, a lawyer for the ruling Pakistan People's Party.

The government has long refused the court's demand, claiming the president has immunity from prosecution while in office. Ruling party supporters have accused Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry of relentlessly pursuing the case because of bad blood between him and Zardari.


Associated Press writers Zaheer Babar in Lahore, Pakistan, Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan, and Asif Shahzad and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.