Pakistan's army offensive in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan heated up on Monday, with militants attacking three security force bases and military jets responding with airstrikes that killed at least 21 people, intelligence officials said.
The overnight and early morning clashes follow artillery attacks Sunday on suspected militant hide-outs in two towns in the northwest that killed 27 fighters, officials said. Elsewhere in the volatile region, a citizens' militia killed seven suspected militants. The government announced last week that the military would go after Pakistan's Taliban commander, Baitullah Mehsud, in the South Waziristan tribal area. His stronghold is a chunk of the remote and rugged mountainous region where heavily armed tribesmen hold sway and al-Qaida and Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding. Washington supports anti-militant 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 US and other troops.
Militants used mortars, rockets, gunfire and even an anti-aircraft gun to attack three military bases overnight in South and North Waziristan, five intelligence officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk with media. Their reports could not be confirmed because of a lack of media access to the conflict zones, and official military spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
No government casualties were reported, but the intelligence officials said security forces responded with artillery and airstrikes on at least six villages against militant targets, including a suspected training camp where eight people were killed. While most of the dead appeared to be militants, three women and three children died when the house of a local tribal leader was hit in the Razmak area, one official said.
The military is trying to avoid civilian casualties, worried about a public backlash at a time when support for a crackdown on extremism has been gathering strength in anger over suicide bombings and other attacks.
Qari Hussain, a close aide of Mehsud, telephoned The Associated Press on Monday to say the military strikes had not weakened the Taliban in South Waziristan, and claim they hit civilians and destroyed their homes.
"With the grace of God we all are safe and no damage has been caused to Taliban ranks, but innocent women, children and men are being killed in the aerial bombing and shelling by the army," Hussain said.
There was no way to verify the claims because there is no media access to the region.
President Asif Alil Zardari claimed on Sunday that the entire country backs the battle against the extremists, citing the support as key to the military's success so far.
"The operations before this were not successful because they did not have public support," Zardari said in a speech. Local citizens militias, known as lashkars, have been emerging that have attacked and reportedly killed dozens of Taliban. 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 the tribal regions.
Public support for the army offensive also could erode if the government is perceived to have failed more than 2 million people displaced by the fighting. The first refugees are expected to start going home at the end of the week.
(Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Hussain Afzal in Para Chinar contributed to this report.)