PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Pakistan's top civilian security official vowed Friday to "wipe out" Islamic militants in a volatile tribal region where the government says more than 460 insurgents and 22 troops have died in 10 days of fighting.
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said Pakistani intelligence have reports that about 3,000 armed militants are present in the northwestern region of Bajur, which borders Afghanistan. He said they included Pakistanis, Afghan Taliban and Central Asians.
"We will wipe them out," Malik told a news conference in Peshawar. "We will not surrender before them."
Pakistani army helicopter gunships and jets have been pounding militant positions in Bajur since the fighting broke out Aug. 6 when scores of insurgents attacked a military outpost. The region is regarded as a stronghold for Taliban and al-Qaida.
The insurgent attack followed a Taliban threat to retaliate against the government for launching military operations in other frontier regions where it has earlier sought to use dialogue to reach peace with militants — a controversial policy that appears in danger of collapse.
Alongside Malik at a news conference, provincial Gov. Owais Ahmed Ghani said some 219,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting in Bajur and promised to provide them food and shelter.
Ghani gave the details of the latest toll from the fighting. With some 480 killed, it is one of the bloodiest episodes since Pakistan first deployed its troops along its volatile border with Afghanistan in support of the U.S.-led war on terror nearly seven years ago.
It has not been possible to independently confirm the casualty figures, which are more than double the number given by the army in recent days. Insecurity and the remoteness of the region prevent journalists from covering the fighting. Also telecommunications in Bajur are poor.
On Thursday, nine men died when troops backed by helicopter gunships destroyed their two vehicles near Khar, the region's main town, said Mohammed Khan, a local government official.
Malik said he could not confirm reports that the local Taliban chief, Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, was among the dead. Mohammed is believed to be an associate of al-Qaida No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Pakistan has faced a blizzard of criticism that its policy of negotiation with militants has allowed more freedom for Taliban and al-Qaida-linked fighters to operate and launch attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
Malik, however, claimed that the militants were receiving rocket launchers, missiles and other munitions from across the border.
"We have evidence to prove what we are saying," he said, without elaborating on who was supplying them.