In one of the deadliest days in the Khyber tribal region, dozens of people were killed in clashes and a suicide blast on Friday, officials said.
According to unconfirmed reports, at least 23 people were killed in a suicide attack targeting a mosque in the remote Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency after Friday prayers, while at least 10 soldiers and 23 militants died in an earlier clash around 10 kilometres away.
The clash erupted in the restive Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency when militants belonging to the Mangal Bagh-led Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI) extremist group attacked security forces, who had established posts in the Maira Sar area almost a week back. The area has been consistently bombarded by security forces as it is considered a stronghold of LeI militants.
“At around 11:00pm last night, militants attacked the post,” said a security official, adding that 10 security personnel were killed and three injured in the clashes that continued till 5:00am.
While confirming that around 23 militants were also killed in the fighting, the official said that the situation had been stabilised by the security forces. “All posts of security agencies in the area are intact and the situation is stable,” another security official said, blaming LeI for triggering the clash.
A senior official of the political administration told The Express Tribune that a nephew of Mangal Bagh was also killed in the clash. “Bahadur and two other prominent LeI members were killed when security forces retaliated,” he said.
In a separate incident a suicide bomber detonated himself near the gate of a mosque in Tirah Valley when people were returning from Friday prayers, local administration official Jamilur Rehman, told AFP.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the suicide attack in a telephone call to mediapersons in Dera Ismael Khan. A spokesperson for the TTP Darra Adam Khel chapter said that the LeI was the target of the suicide attack.
The targeted mosque is located in an area controlled by LeI fighters, Rehman said and added that most of the dead were from LeI.
Eyewitnesses put the death toll at 23 but a senior official of the political administration said that he could only confirm four fatalities.
“According to our sources in the area, there were four deaths and three injuries and the target was Mangal Bagh.” he said, adding that following the attack there had been rumours that Mangal Bagh was killed. “However, we believe he was not in the area and remained unhurt.” the official added.
Tirah Valley is a no-go zone, an area which has little communication with the outside world. The area has been under the influence of militant factions, including the TTP, LeI and Ansarul Islam, who have consistently targeted each other over territorial disputes and sectarian differences.
In neighbouring Orakzai tribal region, army warplanes bombed two militant hideouts, killing 15 militants and wounding 12, security officials said. Casualties could not be independently verified, and militants often dispute official accounts.
(With additional input from AGENCIES)
Published in The Express Tribune, March 3rd, 2012.