ISLAMABAD – Military jets and artillery pounded suspected militant hide-outs in two towns in Pakistan's northwest on Sunday, killing 27 fighters, officials said. Elsewhere in the volatile region, a citizens' militia killed seven suspected militants.
As the violence raged, President Asif Alil Zardari claimed the entire country backs the battle against the extremists.
The military has stepped up strikes in the past week on suspected militant bases in Bajur, where violence has spiked again almost five months after the military declared victory after a monthslong offensive.
Two local government officials, Iqbal Khan and Nawaz Khan, said bombs dropped from planes on targets in Salarzai town killed 13 militants. In nearby Charmang, shelling killed 14 militants, the officials said. The military has attacked targets in Charmang several times in the past week.
In nearby Upper Dir, a citizens' militia engaged in a two-hour clash with militants that killed seven and wounded one more, police said.
Ejaz Ahmed, police chief in the Upper Dir region, said the fighting occurred late Saturday night near the village of Patrak, about four miles (seven kilometers) east of Dir Khas, the region's main town and district headquarters.
Several civilian militias, known as lashkars, have emerged in Upper Dir since a suicide bombing on a mosque two weeks ago blamed on the Taliban killed at least 33 people. The militias carry out patrols and have been pursuing remnants of Taliban who had tried to expand their influence into the area.
Ahmed said scores of militants have been trapped and killed by the militias in several villages, with police cutting off escape routes. The Taliban who were killed Saturday had been trying to flee when they came across the militiamen and opened fire, he said.
"Due to heavy losses, militants have been attempting to escape the area under cover of dark, and last night's incident was one such attempt," Ahmed said. He said no civilians were killed in the fighting.
The report could not immediately be confirmed due to military restrictions on media access to the area.
In the most striking example of growing anti-Taliban sentiment, up to 1,600 tribesmen in Upper Dir cleared three villages of Taliban fighters two weeks ago, killing at least six militants.
Zardari said the military has been having success against the Taliban because Pakistan's people are backing the troops.
"The operations before this were not successful because they did not have a public support," Zardari said in a speech marking what would have been the 56th birthday of his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated 18 months ago.
A majority of Pakistanis oppose extremism, but the Taliban have gained influence in several areas — including Dir and Swat Valley — in recent years. The militants also have some support in tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan, where U.S. officials say they plot attacks on American troops across the border.
Previous army offensives against militants have failed to drive them out completely, and the government has struck a series of peace deals that have eventually fallen apart.
The Swat offensive seems to have enjoyed an unprecedented level of public support, but that could erode if the government is perceived to have failed more than 2 million people displaced by the fighting or if civilian casualties mount.
Troops continued Sunday to try to clear a road blocked by the Taliban in the nearby South Waziristan tribal area, where shelling and bombing of suspected militant targets has increased and ground troops have been moving into position since the government announced the military would go after Pakistan's Taliban commander, Baitullah Mehsud.
Two intelligence officials said six suspected militants were killed Sunday in South Waziristan when a military jet pounded their positions minutes after they fired three rockets that missed a military camp. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
South Waziristan is Mehsud's tribal stronghold, a chunk of the remote and rugged mountainous region along Pakistan's northwestern border with Afghanistan where heavily armed tribesmen hold sway and al-Qaida and Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding.
Washington supports both the Swat and Waziristan operations, seeing them as a measure of nuclear-armed Pakistan's resolve in taking on a growing insurgency. The battle in the tribal region could also help the war in Afghanistan because the area has been used by militants to launch cross-border attacks on U.S. and other troops.