Peshawar, Pakistan (AFP) Aug 17, 2009
Up to 24 militants were reported killed Monday in air strikes and clashes in Pakistan's northwest, where six civilians were also killed by a car bomb at a petrol station, officials said.
Two children were among the dead in the blast in northwest Charsadda town, police said, which came after a lull in the past month of bombings blamed on Taliban militants avenging a punishing offensive against them.
Pakistan's military claims to have cleared northwest Swat district of Taliban fighters after launching a push in late April to dislodge extremists bent of imposing a harsh brand of Islamic law in the verdant valley.
Sporadic outbreaks of fighting continue, but the government has urged the 1.9 million civilians uprooted by the conflict to return home.
Overnight in Swat's main town Mingora, a suicide bomber blew himself up wounding four soldiers as they tried to arrest him, a military official said.
In Kabal village about 20 kilometres (12 miles) northwest of Mingora, seven suspected Taliban militants were killed during a gunfight with soldiers late Sunday, the senior official told AFP, asking not to be named.
Islamabad's attention has now turned to the wild and lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border, the heartland of Pakistan's umbrella organisation Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has alleged links to Al-Qaeda.
On Saturday, air strikes by Pakistani fighter jets killed 16 militants, wounded 30 others, and destroyed several Taliban hideouts in South Waziristan.
Security officials had been unable to confirm the deaths until Monday, as the strikes hit a far-flung area largely outside the government's control.
"Pakistani warplanes pounded the Makeen area of South Waziristan, killing 16 militants and injuring 30," an intelligence official based in the main regional town Wana told AFP by telephone.
Another security official confirmed the toll, and said that several militant hideouts were also destroyed, while locals alleged that civilians had been hurt when the bombs struck a market area, clinic and hotel.
"Six local residents -- mostly young -- were injured when the bazaar was hit," Makeen resident Noor Jihan told AFP by telephone.
In an apparent blow for the militants, TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud was this month reported killed in a US drone missile strike in South Waziristan, although both countries have stopped short of confirming his death.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Sunday said that the militant group was "in disarray" and plagued by infighting after the reported death of Mehsud -- claims previously denied by the Taliban, who say the warlord is still alive.
Late Sunday, reports emerged that at least 17 militants were shot dead in South Waziristan as warlords apparently vied for supremacy.
The fighters loyal to Maulvi Nazir, leader of a Taliban faction, were ambushed near the Mehsud stronghold of Salayrogha village, although a spokesman for the militant group refused to speculate who was behind the attack.
Nazir had joined hands with the TTP four months ago after repeated missile strikes by US drones in the area.
In an editorial in Pakistan's The News, retired general and analyst Talat Masood wrote that Mehsud's demise was a setback for the militants, but warned that Al-Qaeda must not be allowed to fill the power vacuum.
"Baitullah's departure no doubt has been highly demoralising for his followers and has led to a power struggle," he wrote.
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