Clash in NW Pakistan kills 2 police, 15 militants

Published 5:47 pm Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dozens of militants bearing rocket-propelled grenades attacked a key security checkpoint near the Pakistani city of Peshawar early Wednesday, sparking a three-hour clash that killed two police officers and 15 insurgents, police said.

The attack on the Sangu Mera checkpoint comes amid Taliban threats to avenge the May 2 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the town of Abbottabad in Pakistan’s volatile northwest. It is more likely tied to the Pakistani military’s offensives against militant groups in its tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

Sangu Mera lies just along the border of Khyber tribal region, one of the areas where Taliban and other militants have hideouts and where the Pakistani army has staged multiple operations. The checkpoint is about 6 miles away from Peshawar, a strategically important city near Afghanistan.

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Senior police official Liaquat Ali Khan said as many as 100 militants carrying rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons attacked the security forces overnight. But eventually the insurgents were pushed back.

Security checkpoints are frequently attacked by militants in Pakistan — sometimes through suicide bombings and other times involving large numbers of insurgents such as Wednesday’s incident. The clashes are often linked to ongoing military offensives in the tribal belt.

Pakistan’s army has carried out anti-insurgent operations in six of its seven tribal districts. The one place it has not mounted an offensive is the place the U.S. wants it to most — North Waziristan, a tribal area home to militants whose primary focus is attacking U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

The Pakistanis say they are too stretched battling insurgents who have attacked the Pakistani state to order a North Waziristan offensive right now. The U.S. relies heavily on its missile strikes to take out targets in North Waziristan.

Pakistan and the U.S. are struggling to improve their relations since the Navy SEALs raid that killed the al-Qaida chief in Abbottabad, a garrison city a few hours away from Peshawar.

Pakistani officials consider the surprise U.S. raid on bin Laden a violation of their sovereignty, and deny knowing he was staying in Abbottabad. The U.S. says the secrecy surrounding the mission was vital to its success.

Also Wednesday, gunmen on a motorbike killed five minority Shiite Muslims in a minibus in what appeared to be a sectarian attack in Pakistan’s southwest Baluchistan province, police said. Six people also were wounded in the attack in Quetta, the provincial capital.

Police official Sultan Mohammed Gichki said the attack was likely carried out by Sunni Muslim extremists, but that no group has claimed responsibility so far.

Pakistan is a majority Sunni Muslim state. Although most Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan live together peacefully, extremists on both sides often target each other’s leaders and activists.