Pakistani troops, backed by gunship helicopters, clashed with militants in a rare gun battle in the main town of North Waziristan agency on Wednesday, local sources and a military official said.
The region is known as the nerve centre of al Qaeda in the country’s tribal areas and allegedly serves as headquarters for the Haqqani network.
The skirmishes between soldiers deployed in Miranshah and militants started early Wednesday morning after a military convoy travelling to the border village of Datta Khel was hit by mortars allegedly fired by militants.
The bomb killed three soldiers and wounded another 14, said intelligence officials.
Troops surrounded the area after the attack and blew up a hospital allegedly used by the Taliban and other militants. The hospital belongs to the father of a local parliamentarian.
Troops engage militants
During the five-hour standoff, one local resident said he saw two gunship helicopters shelling a government school where militants were holed up.
Another witness said militants fired on a helicopter from a rooftop in the main market, where traders were trapped by the fighting.
“The gunship shelled three times in their direction,” a shopkeeper trapped by the clashes told AFP by telephone.
An AFP reporter saw several Taliban fighters in the town firing at army checkposts with automatic weapons and rocket launchers. The market shut and Miranshah plunged into a blackout after Taliban militants targeted an electricity transformer, the reporter said.
Authorities later relaxed a curfew after the guns fell silent in the mid-afternoon.
Sources said four militants and one civilian were killed in the crossfire, and 10 other people were wounded, including five army personnel, four militants and one civilian.
The exchange of fire resumed later at night and according to the last update around midnight, three shells hit residential quarters inside the main military fort of North Waziristan, injuring two children.
Not a ‘planned operation’
It was, however, not clear whether the encounter was between troops and militants from Haqqani network or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has a strong presence in the area since it was driven out of neighboring South Waziristan agency after a military operation late 2009.
“It was not a planned operation. We moved ground troops to blow the hospital up and in the meantime, militants attacked the soldiers,” a security official told AFP in Peshawar.
A top intelligence official in Islamabad also downplayed any ‘surgical or limited’ military operation in the area, saying what happened there was an ‘isolated incident.’
“There isn’t any operation going on there … it is just one of incidents that sometimes take place there,” said the official on condition of anonymity.
Encounter at hospital
MNA Kamran Khan from North Waziristan confirmed to the Express Tribune that Zakeem Hospital, named after his father, was destroyed by the army and some of patients and staffers were taken away.
According to some sources, Uzbek militants associated with the TTP were being treated at the hospital but Kamran denied these reports, saying all those arrested were locals.
The MNA said that according to his sources, Haqqanis were not involved in this conflict with the military and it was an encounter between the army and militants from the TTP.
Military official said the army suspected the attack was directed from the hospital that is reportedly used to treat militants, so soldiers destroyed part of it.
When they went to destroy the rest of the hospital Wednesday morning, they came under heavy fire from militants in the Miranshah bazaar and had to call in helicopter gunships for support, said the official.(With additional input from AFP.)
Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2011.
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