KHAR, Pakistan – Pakistani security forces pushed Taliban militants who came from Afghanistan back across the border after more than two weeks of fighting in a mountainous tribal region, spokesmen for both sides said Sunday. The government says over 100 people were killed in the offensive.
The violence in the northwestern Bajur area highlighted the growing problem of Taliban militants using sanctuaries in Afghanistan to attack Pakistan. The frequency of the raids has increased, and this was the first instance in which Pakistani Taliban militants coming from Afghanistan seized and held territory in Pakistan for a significant amount of time.
Pakistan has called on Afghan and NATO forces to do more to stop militants from crossing into the country. Kabul and the international coalition have acknowledged the problem, but also want Pakistan to do more to stop militants holed up on its territory from launching attacks into Afghanistan.
Security forces finally managed to push the militants back from the Salarzai region of Bajur on Saturday, said Jehangir Azam Wazir, the top political official in the area.
"Unexpectedly, the militants showed tough resistance this time, but finally our security forces along with volunteers of the Salarzai militia succeeded in eliminating them," said Wazir.
The dead included at least 80 militants, 18 civilians, 12 anti-Taliban militiamen and eight soldiers, he said. An additional 13 soldiers are missing and are believed to be in the hands of the Taliban.
Hundreds of people who were trapped by the fighting in a string of villages along the border were finally able to leave Saturday. They had been confined to their homes, and many were running low on food.
"Those days were very difficult and passed with a lot of hardship," said Hikmat Jan, who had been stranded with his family in Gambat village. "We were unable to go out and were tense, fearing the militants would come kidnap us or we would be killed by shelling or starve to death because we were running out of food."
Jan said the dead were strewn across the village.
"I saw many bodies in the fields and streets," said Jan. "I don't know whether they were militants, volunteers or fellow villagers."
Gul Mohammed, who was caught outside his home in Batwar village by the fighting, said he was finally able to reunite with his relatives after weeks of separation.
"I had no hope I would be able to see my family and my children alive again," said Mohammed. "Nothing gives me more happiness than seeing my family back safe and alive."
Thousands of others who managed to flee before the fighting ended have been provided food by the government, said the top political official in Bajur, Syed Abdul Jabbar Shah.
Security forces are searching the villages that were cleared of militants to make sure they did not plant any bombs, said Wazir, the official in Salarzai. People will be allowed to return to their villages once the search is complete, he said.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan confirmed the militants retreated but said they would regroup and attack again. He claimed they brought back the bodies of 14 soldiers they killed.
"We will attack this area again soon with much increased strength," Ahsan told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The militants who attacked the Salarzai area came from the neighboring Afghan province of Kunar. They have also staged attacks from the adjacent Afghan province of Nuristan. Many Pakistani Taliban fighters fled to these areas following army operations in Pakistan's tribal region, taking advantage of the fact that the U.S. pulled out most of its forces from these Afghan provinces in recent years.
The Pakistani Taliban are allied with the Afghan Taliban, but they have focused their attacks in different areas. The Pakistani Taliban have waged war on the Pakistani government, while the Afghan Taliban have battled Afghan and NATO forces inside Afghanistan.
It's unclear whether the recent militant incursion into Salarzai was retaliation for the death of the head of the Pakistani Taliban in Bajur, Mullah Dadullah, in a NATO airstrike in Kunar on Aug. 24.
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad.