The Taliban claimed responsibility Saturday for a Pakistani helicopter crash that killed 26 security personnel, as helicopter gunships pounded suspected militant hideouts in the northwest.
The Pakistani military dismissed the Taliban claim, repeating an earlier statement that the crash was caused by a "technical fault". The helicopter crashed Friday on the border of the rugged semi-autonomous Orakzai and Khyber tribal regions and officials said no one survived.
Helicopters shelled suspected hideouts in Orakzai, said Wajid Ali, spokesman for the paramilitary Frontier Corps. "Our helicopters targeted militant hideouts in the area," he said. Orakzai is believed to have been infiltrated by militants loyal to Pakistani Taliban, who earlier claimed responsibility for the crash.
"We shot down the helicopter," a spokesman for Taliban insurgents based in the nearby Darra Adam Khel region told AFP by telephone. The spokesman, identifying himself as Muhammad, said the helicopter had been shot down in retaliation for the Pakistani military operation in South Waziristan, a stronghold of the Taliban and Al-Qaida.
A military spokesman reiterated Saturday that the crash was caused by a "technical fault". "Taliban militants frequently make false claims," he said. "All 26 people on board died and the wreckage of the helicopter has been removed," he said, adding an inquiry had been ordered.
On Friday a senior security official said a military MI-17 helicopter had crashed due to a technical fault, killing 26 security personnel on board. The crash happened 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), he said.
Pakistan has been fighting a two-month battle to dislodge militants in three districts of the northwest. The military has also launched air raids in the tribal belt to prepare for a second front against the Taliban in South Waziristan, a stronghold of feared warlord Baitullah Mehsud.
Fighter jets have been pounding suspected insurgent hideouts in South and North Waziristan, where the military says it is preparing for a full-scale offensive. Military and government officials have vowed to track down and eliminate the warlord blamed for a wave of deadly blasts in Pakistan in the past two years.
Pakistan has offered a 615,000-dollar reward for information leading to the capture, dead or alive, of Mehsud, who is holed up in South Waziristan. About 2,000 people have died in bombings since July 2007 and the United States has put Pakistan at the heart of its war against Al-Qaida and efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, welcoming a military push to clear out Taliban havens.
Fighting in Pakistan's tribal belt follows two months of assaults to root out the Taliban from three districts of NWFP. Commanders say those assaults are nearly over, but sporadic fighting has continued and many areas have been devastated by the offensive, leaving it unclear how an estimated two million displaced people can easily return home.
Troops on Saturday destroyed seven houses in Swat's Charbagh district, the region's administration chief Khushal Khan said. The houses had belonged to the supporters of militants, he said.
The Pakistani military says more than 1,600 militants have been killed since late April in the districts of Swat and Dir. Death tolls released by Pakistan are impossible to confirm independently because fighting takes place in closed military zones and the army has faced scepticism about the death toll figures.