PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Suspected Taliban militants ambushed a Pakistani paramilitary convoy Saturday in a restive northwestern town, killing 16 soldiers and wounding others, officials said.
The convoy was heading to a fort outside Hangu district near the border with Afghanistan when the rebels attacked it with rocket propelled grenades and assault rifles, local police officer Shakirullah Jan told AFP.
He did not confirm the death toll.
But a senior security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 16 soldiers were killed in the neighbourhood of Zargari, outside Hangu city.
Security forces responded by attacking Taliban positions using gunship helicopters and artillery fire in the mountainous region.
“16 Frontier Constabulary were killed in the ambush and a few were injured. Security forces have pounded militant positions using gunship helicopters, the number of casualties on the Taliban side was unknown,” the official told AFP.
Hangu district, which has a history of violence between minority Shiite and majority Sunni sects, is close to tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where pro-Taliban militants are active.
Pakistan is battling a resurgence in Islamist violence after a brief lull brought about by the new government’s negotiations with Taliban militants in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.
The negotiations, launched after the government came to power five months ago, has drawn criticism from the United States and other Western allies.
Local official Fazan Khan said Saturday’s attack — the latest incident in a week of bloodshed in the country that included a suicide bomb attack — involved hundreds of Taliban militants.
“Hundreds of Taliban attacked the convoy and did not allow security forces to retrieve the dead bodies of the soldiers for several hours,” Khan said.
A suicide attack killed 19 people near a protest marking the anniversary of a bloody government-backed raid on the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad six days ago. Although there was no claim of responsibility, officials said they were examining a range of possible culprits, including the mosque’s former students and Taliban militants based near the Afghan border.
That bombing was followed the next day by six blasts in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi, which left one person dead and 37 injured.
Pakistani forces launched an operation late last month against Islamic radicals near the northwestern city of Peshawar but the government has yet to convince its foreign backers it is serious about combating militancy.
The new government comprises the Pakistan People’s Party of former premier Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December last year, and the grouping of ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Kabul has also put pressure on Islamabad to tackle Taliban rebels based near the border. A suicide car bomb attack on the Indian embassy in the Afghan capital on Monday left 41 dead and around 150 injured.
Afghanistan has repeatedly accused Pakistan’s intelligence agencies of supporting the Taliban. Islamabad backed the hardline regime during its 1996-2001 rule but denies any current links to the militia.