A Pakistani military commander said on Tuesday that a new air and ground offensive had killed up to 80 militants in the northern extremity of the lawless tribal belt on the Afghan border.
The paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) stepped up an offensive targeting Taliban havens in Bajaur district after a suicide bombing killed 17 people at a military checkpoint on Saturday.
Bajaur, which is at the northern tip of the semi-autonomous tribal belt, has seen a spike in attacks and Pakistan is under US pressure to do more to eliminate the extremist menace to ease the conflict in Afghanistan.
The raids are concentrated around Mamoond, about 12 kilometres (eight miles) northwest of Khar, a notorious Taliban hideout which Pakistan failed to clear in past offensives against militant havens.
"When we started the operation it was estimated that there were about 1,000 militants present in the area and 80 of them have been killed so far," Colonel Rana Munnawar told reporters at a briefing in the village of Sawai.
There was no independent confirmation of the death toll. Local officials have given a combined toll of 43 militants killed since Saturday, and said two other militants were found hanging from a pole outside Khar.
Four soldiers have been killed, Munnawar said. Militants from nearby districts Swat and Dir, where Pakistan quelled a major Taliban uprising last year have also joined the fight, he added.
Pakistani troops backed by jets, helicopter gunships and commandos swung into action Sunday in Sawai, some 22 kilometres northwest of Khar, where they have come under mortar and rocket fire, Munnawar said.
He claimed the offensive had dislodged a Taliban command and control system, but expected main operations to take another 15 days.
The colonel said troops had also captured the strategic height of Khaza, where the militants had attacked from bunkers and set up a training centre.
Pakistan first launched operations in the district in August 2008 and has claimed several times to have eliminated the Islamist militant threat.
US officials call Pakistan's tribal belt the most dangerous place on earth and, following the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the headquarters of Al-Qaeda, which has links to Taliban and other extreme Islamist networks.