Five Pakistani soldiers and at least 21 suspected militants were killed in clashes in a region near the Afghan border where the military is pursuing Taliban insurgents fleeing a U.S.-backed offensive, authorities said Friday.
The reports came a day after officials said 61 suspected militants died in airstrikes in the same region, Orakzai, and underscored the challenge facing Pakistan as it tries to wipe out Pakistani Taliban fighters bent on overthrowing the state.
Local government official Sami Ullah said the fighting occurred after dawn Friday when militants attacked a checkpoint. He said at least 27 militants died. But an army statement said 21 insurgents were killed, and the clashes occurred when security forces were trying to recapture a checkpoint taken Thursday night by militants in the Kalaya area of Orakzai.
|Armed Pakistani Taliban gather at a hideout in the semi-autonomous tribal district of Orakzai in 2009|
The two accounts could not immediately be reconciled. Access to the remote, dangerous region is heavily restricted, making it nearly impossible to verify the accounts independently.
On Thursday, jet fire rained down in the Mamuzai area of Orakzai, targeting a religious seminary, a mosque and a school, local official Samiullah Orakzai said.
Two intelligence officials said the seminary was a main center for Tableeghi Jamaat, a nonviolent Islamic missionary group. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
The center was targeted because a group of Taliban leaders were believed to be meeting there in the afternoon, the officials said.
Some four dozen people died in the airstrikes in and around the seminary, while 13 others were killed in morning strikes at the two other sites. The officials said all 61 killed were suspected militants.
Orakzai is considered a major base for Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistan Taliban's top commander, who is believed to have died in a U.S. missile strike in January. The Taliban have denied his death, but have failed to show evidence he is still alive.
The Pakistani Taliban have been under pressure in their main stronghold, South Waziristan tribal region, since the army launched its ground offensive there in October. Many are believed to have scattered to other parts of the tribal belt, which borders Afghanistan in Pakistan's northwest.
Orakzai and neighboring tribal area Kurram have witnessed numerous airstrikes over the past few months as Pakistan tries to catch fleeing militants.