Pakistani security forces have seized a key Taliban stronghold in a northwestern area that the government had declared free of militants a year ago following a military offensive but has experienced periodic violence since then.
The army captured Damadola on Saturday as part of an operation launched in late January to quell the persistent violence in the Bajur tribal area. The offensive, which has killed more than 60 militants, is one of several that Pakistan has launched in recent months against Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in the volatile Afghan border region.
The US has praised Pakistan for its recent operations but has also pushed the government to take on other militants who are launching cross-border attacks against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan has resisted, saying it has its hands full battling militants waging war against the state, including those in Bajur.
"We are in full control of Damadola," said Abdul Malik, a local government official. "We are also working to set up a militia to ensure the militants cannot return."
Damadola, a cluster of more than dozen villages about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of the main town of Khar, has served as a stronghold for local and foreign militants for years and was one of the first areas targeted by U.S drone missile strikes in 2006. The area was filled with militant hide-outs, training centers, tunnels and cemented bunkers, said another local official, Jamil Khan. Pakistani forces never invaded Damadola during the initial Bajur operation launched in late 2008 because the dominant tribe in the area promised to expel the militants, said Khan. The tribe failed in its efforts, prompting the military to launch its latest operation on Jan. 27 using ground forces backed by artillery, fighter jets and helicopter gunships, he said. The Taliban said they withdrew from the area responding to orders from senior commanders.
"We are doing it as part of a strategy," a local Taliban commander, Izzat Ullah, told The Associated Press by telephone without providing details.
Residents said the militants fled in a hurry.
"They even left their women behind," said Hashmat Khan. "They handed the women over to local people."