Military officials in Pakistan say that several days of intense clashes in a key militant-dominated valley on the Afghan border have left 23 Pakistani soldiers and more than 110 militants dead. The fighting is taking place not far from a major NATO supply route.
Backed by helicopter gunships and fighter jets, the Pakistan army began the anti-insurgency operation in the northwestern Tirah Valley on Friday and is apparently facing stiff resistance from the Taliban and their allied militant groups.
Insurgents are believed to be well-entrenched in the area, making it difficult for ground troops to launch a full-blown offensive. Army commandos are also taking part in the operation that officials say has regained control of almost all hilltops overlooking the valley.
A brief military statement issued Tuesday evening says the “anti-terror” operation is making advances and has destroyed several hideouts, in addition to killing scores of “terrorists”.
It is not possible to independently verify accounts of the fighting because Tirah is cut off to reporters and aid workers. The valley is located in the tribal district of Khyber, which serves as a major supply route for NATO and American forces in Afghanistan. Moreover, it borders two other insurgency-hit Pakistani tribal districts, namely Orakzai and Kurram.
Sher Alam Shinwar, a columnist and expert on the volatile tribal region, says that the presence of large numbers of militants in Tirah was threatening military gains in surrounding areas and making the main city of Peshawar vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
"It [Tirah] is very close to Peshawar and also to the main NATO route leading to Afghanistan," said Shinwar.
The NATO supply line is also used by U.S.-led troops to evacuate military equipment ahead of their planned withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
The Tirah Valley has been the scene of intense clashes between the Taliban-supported local extremist outfit, Lashkar-e-Islam, and Ansar-e-Islam, which is allied with pro-government tribesmen, but its fighters had to flee the area after suffering heavy losses.
The violence also displaced thousands of civilian families from Tirah, prompting the Pakistani army to launch the current offensive.
Shinwari says that there are reports of civilians caught in the current fighting.
“There are some people who have been stranded and they have no food and they have no medicine and they have been stranded quite for some time," he said.
United Nations officials say civilian families displaced by the fighting have taken refuge in and around Peshawar, and are in need of food, shelter, healthcare as well as clean drinking water. Pakistan has conducted major operations to uproot militant bases on its side of the border but it has not been able to effectively neutralize the threat.