BUNER, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani troops took the main town in strategically important Buner Valley on Wednesday after dropping by helicopter behind Taliban lines, killing more than 50 militants in two days, the military said.
A U.S. drone fired a missile into another region, the major al Qaeda sanctuary of South Waziristan, killing six militants in the latest such attack by U.S. forces in Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan.
The strike targeted a vehicle and two of the militants were foreigners, an intelligence official told Reuters from the region.
The Taliban’s advance earlier this month into Buner, just 100 km (60 miles) northwest of the capital, had sent shivers through Pakistan and heightened fears in the United States that the nuclear-armed Muslim state was becoming more unstable.
“We assure the nation that armed forces have the capability to ward off any kind of threat,” military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas told a news conference in Rawalpindi, the garrison town close to the capital, Islamabad.
Pakistan used jet fighters at the start of the operation on Tuesday, then deployed helicopter gunships which inflicted more than 50 casualties, Abbas said. One soldier was killed.
The Islamabad government’s demonstration of military resolve may reassure U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai when they meet Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Washington on May 6-7 to discuss strategy.
Obama, speaking in Missouri, said al Qaeda and the Taliban were the “single most direct threat” to U.S. national security.
U.S. lawmakers plan to accelerate the flow of more than $400 million (271 million pounds) in aid to Pakistan to help with counterinsurgency operations, contained in a much larger spending measure which also provides funding for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The measure also includes $1.4 billion in economic aid for Islamabad.
Steny Hoyer, leader of the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, told Reuters the chamber could vote in mid-May on Obama’s funding request.
U.S. officials want to provide the aid as part of an effort to reverse militant gains in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
General James Conway, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said Pakistan’s top army officer was concerned that a planned increase in U.S. military operations in southern Afghanistan could cause refugee flows into Pakistan.
He said General Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, was also worried more militants would be pushed into Pakistan and could endanger supply lines for international forces in Afghanistan.
But Conway said Kayani may be citing a worst-case scenario.
“Not everybody believes that’s where the Taliban will flush to,” Conway told reporters at the Pentagon. “In any event, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do in the south.”
The militants’ growing clout deep into Pakistan’s northwest has raised alarm bells across Pakistan and the United States.
Pakistani stocks lost more than 2 percent on Wednesday due to worries over mounting insecurity.
Taliban fighters had held the entrances to the valley, but they risked being caught between security forces at their front and rear after the successful airdrop.
“The airborne forces have linked up to police and Frontier Constabulary in Daggar,” the military spokesman said earlier. “A link-up with ground forces is in progress.”
Residents saw troops descend from helicopters outside Daggar, the main town in Buner.
The military spokesman said the soldiers had freed 18 of some 70 police and militiamen abducted by militants on Tuesday.
Three members of an al Jazeera television crew were wounded when they came under fire while reporting from Buner, the network’s website said.
The military estimated some 500 militants were in the Buner valley of the North West Frontier Province, about 140 km (80 miles) southeast of the Afghan border, and that it might take a week to clear them out.
The military has said a few hundred militants holed up in the mountains never represented a real threat to the capital.
But Ikram Seghal, a retired army officer turned analyst, said the Taliban could have used Buner to advance on Tarbela, a dam regarded as critical for water and electricity supplies, before reaching Islamabad.
“It is very important psychologically, tactically and strategically to make sure that Buner is cleared of these Taliban,” said Seghal.
Allies had feared Zardari’s government was too ready to appease militants after he signed off on a regulation to introduce Islamic sharia courts in the Malakand division of North West Frontier Province.
Additional reporting by Junaid Khan, Augustine Anthony and Zeeshan Haider in Pakistan, and Andrew Gray in Washington; writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; editing by Charles Dick and Mohammad Zargham