DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – Taliban fighters killed 14 Pakistani soldiers in a key militant sanctuary along the Afghan border, beheaded all but one of them and hung two of the heads from wooden poles in the center of town, officials said Monday.
The killings in Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal area, highlight the dilemma facing the military in dealing with an area used by both the country's fiercest enemy, the Pakistani Taliban, and Afghan and Pakistani militants believed to be close to the government who are battling U.S.-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
The U.S. has repeatedly demanded that Pakistan launch an offensive in North Waziristan, especially against the so-called Haqqani network. Pakistan has promised to do so in the future, but claims its forces are stretched too thin right now fighting the Pakistani Taliban in other parts of the tribal region.
"Something has to be done, and it's in the offing," Lt. Gen. Khalid Rabbani, the army's top commander in the northwest, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday. "North Waziristan is the only place left" that hasn't been the target of an operation, he said.
Many analysts believe Pakistan is reluctant to target militants in North Waziristan with whom it has strong historical ties and could be useful allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw. But those militants are also allies with the Pakistani Taliban, complicating matters even further.
On Sunday, the Taliban ambushed a security checkpoint in Miran Shah, killing nine Pakistani soldiers, the army said. Militants had been firing on the checkpoint for the past few days before they ambushed it, the army added.
When authorities finally retrieved the bodies of the dead soldiers, they found that they had been beheaded, said intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The army retaliated Sunday with helicopter gunships that pounded suspected militant hideouts and also hit three houses and a mosque in the town, said intelligence officials. Three civilians were killed and 20 were wounded in the helicopter attacks, they said. It's unclear how many militants were killed.
The military also raided a house in Miran Shah on Sunday night, killing a militant commander and several of his colleagues, said intelligence officials. But the remaining militants escaped with five soldiers captured during the raid.
They beheaded four of them and hung two of their heads from poles in Miran Shah on Monday. The bodies of the others were dumped in Miran Shah bazaar, the officials said.
"This will not shy us off establishing the writ of the government in all the areas, including North Waziristan," said Rabbani, who commands 150,000 troops in the northwest along the Afghan border.
The army unleashed its helicopter gunships again Monday, attacking a weapons market in Miran Shah where the militants who attacked the security checkpoint were believed to be hiding, said intelligence officials. The attack killed some 30 militants and destroyed dozens of shops that sold assault rifles, ammunition and rocket propelled grenades, the officials said.
Since the fighting started Sunday, 20 Pakistani troops have been injured, said the officials.
The attack on the weapons market occurred after the army had declared a curfew, so there did not appear to be any civilian casualties within the bazaar, said Haji Zafran, one of the shop owners. But a dozen people were wounded when a mosque near the market was hit, he said.
The market burned for hours after the attack, and the area reverberated with loud bangs as the flames set off the ammunition and grenades in the shops, said Zafran.
The owner of the market, Haji Noor Deen, protested the army's attack and claimed he and the other arms dealers suffered a loss of millions of dollars.
"Our place was targeted for no reason, as nobody fired a shot from there at the army," said Deen. "The dealers just sell arms to tribesmen."
The army lifted the curfew so that tribal elders and militants could hold a meeting to try to resolve the conflict, said intelligence officials. The jirga included members of the Haqqani network, an Afghan group, and also Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a powerful Pakistani militant commander believed to be close to Pakistan, they said.
Associated Press writers Chris Brummitt and Rasool Dawar contributed to this report from Peshawar, Pakistan.