Afghan rebels strike Pakistan military camp

Assault shows Taliban allied across border

By Laura King
Los Angeles Times / January 12, 2009
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Hundreds of militants crossed over from Afghanistan to attack a Pakistani military outpost yesterday, officials said, in an illustration of the merging of the Taliban insurgency on the two sides of the border.

The attack pointed up the growing boldness of militants operating in the lawless tribal areas abutting Afghanistan at a time when the Pakistan government has diverted some forces to the frontier with India.

While stepping up their campaign against government troops, the insurgents also employed extreme forms of cruelty to intimidate civilians in the tribal areas.

Hospital authorities in Khar, the main town in the Bajaur tribal district, said over the weekend that militants had cut off the ears of five captured members of a local committee organized to keep the Taliban out of town.

In Mohmand, a district neighboring Bajaur, Pakistani officials said at least 40 militants and six soldiers were killed in fighting near a military camp close to the Afghan frontier.

As many as 600 fighters massed for the predawn assault, attacking the outpost with rockets and mortars, according to Pakistani authorities and news reports. Most of the militants had come from Afghanistan and joined with Pakistani allies, officials said.

The camp's defenders fought off the attackers, but clashes in the area continued for some hours, according to a military statement.

In addition to the six government troops killed, seven were injured, and local tribal authorities said militants were believed to have captured at least five soldiers. Many troops abducted in battle are later beheaded by insurgents.

Analysts said the Mohmand fighting reflected stepped-up coordination between Taliban commanders in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and underscored the ease of movement by militants across the rugged, poorly demarcated border.

The flow of fighters from sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas into Afghanistan is well-documented, but instances of militants using the Afghan side of the frontier as a staging ground for an attack against Pakistani targets are rarer.

Insurgents also may perceive that Pakistan is preoccupied with guarding its eastern border with India rather than focusing on the fight against militants along the frontier it shares with Afghanistan, according to the analysts.

"The government's attention is clearly divided," said retired Brigadier General Mahmood Shah, now an analyst based in Peshawar. There are "minimum forces" to keep militants in check on the western border, he said.

Pakistan reportedly redeployed thousands of troops to the Indian border last month when tensions flared in the wake of the November attacks in the city of Mumbai, which India and US intelligence have blamed on the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The soldiers targeted in yesterday's assault were not regular army troops but were from the less well-armed and well-trained Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that operates in the border zone.

Also yesterday, Vice President-elect Joe Biden promised US support for Afghanistan's struggle against terrorism, drugs, and corruption, in surprise visit to a dangerous Taliban-stronghold area of Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported.

President-elect Barack Obama has promised to end the war in Iraq and refocus US military efforts on Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda-linked militants and the Taliban are making a comeback after initial defeats in the US-led invasion in 2001.

The United States is rushing up to 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and some will go to these southern provinces.

Biden said the United States will continue with its struggle against terrorism, but also fight the drug trade and help the government tackle the corruption in its midst, said Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for Ghulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand province.

Biden met Mangal and other Afghan officials inside a coalition base on the outskirts of Helmand's provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, Ahmadi said.

"I am very interested in what becomes of this region because it affects us all," Biden said during his visit to the neighboring Kandahar province, according to a statement issued by the NATO-led force. Biden was on the second day of his trip to Afghanistan.

Biden was briefed on activities of coalition forces in the south by Dutch Major General Mart C. de Kruif, NATO's regional commander. They discussed the addition of American troops there later this year.

Some 32,000 US troops already in Afghanistan serve alongside 32,000 other NATO-led and coalition troops, the highest number since the US-led invasion to oust the Taliban from power began in 2001.

American, British, Canadian, and Dutch troops have borne the brunt of the fighting in this region in the last two years, and NATO's call for other nations to join the fight have been rebuffed.

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