Hundreds of Pakistani tribesmen furious over a deadly suicide bombing at a mosque laid siege to several Taliban strongholds in their troubled northwestern region, killing at least 11 militants, officials said Sunday.
The weekend clashes appeared to be the latest evidence of growing anti-Taliban sentiment in U.S.-allied Pakistan, a shift that comes as suicide attacks have surged and the military wages an offensive in the nearby Swat Valley.
The attack on the mosque left 33 worshippers dead and wounded dozens more during Friday prayers, angering residents of the Haya Gai area of Upper Dir district who have had tensions and minor clashes with local militants for months.
Some 400 villagers banded together to attack five villages in the nearby Dhok Darra area that were known militant strongholds, said Atif-ur-Rehman, the district coordination officer.
The citizens' militia has occupied three of the villages since Saturday and was trying to push the Taliban out of the other two Sunday. Some 20 houses suspected of harboring Taliban were destroyed, he said.
At least 11 militants had died as of Sunday afternoon, district police Chief Ejaz Ahmad said. He said around 200 militants were putting up a tough fight but were surrounded by the villagers.
The government has encouraged local citizens to set up militias, known as lashkars, to oust Taliban fighters, especially in the regions that border Afghanistan where al-Qaida and the Taliban have hide-outs. But villagers' willingness to do so has often hinged on confidence that authorities will back them up if necessary.
With the army reporting advances against the Taliban in Swat — an operation that also reaches into Lower Dir district and has broad public support — that confidence appears to be growing.
Already, military officials say that as they've proceeded with the operation in Swat, local residents who have remained in the region have grown increasingly cooperative, providing tips on militants' hide-outs and more.
"It is something very positive that tribesmen are standing against the militants. It will discourage the miscreants," Rehman said.
Ahmad, the police chief, added, "We will send security forces, maybe artillery too, if the villagers ask for a reinforcement."
Najmuddin Malik, a lawmaker from Upper Dir, said the militants fighting with villagers were from all over Pakistan, including Swat, but that most were foreigners. He said there was no need for army intervention yet.
"People there have arms, small and big, and they are fighting on their own," Malik said.
The month-old Swat offensive, the latest round in a valley that has experienced fighting for two years, is seen as a test of Pakistan's resolve to take on al-Qaida and Taliban fighters on its soil. The U.S. hopes the offensive will eliminate a potential sanctuary for militants implicated in attacks on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.
More than 1,300 militants and 105 soldiers have died so far in the offensive, the military says.
The offensive has generally broad public support, thanks in part to Pakistani anger over a video showing militants flogging a young woman and a speech by a pro-Taliban cleric that condemned the notions of democracy and elections.
Taliban infiltration into a district just 60 miles (95 kilometers) from the capital also rattled Pakistanis who had long considered the militancy a distant problem easily blamed on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have threatened to stage suicide attacks in major Pakistani cities in revenge for the Swat operation.
One attack that seemed to fit with the threat came late Saturday in Islamabad, when a man wearing an explosives-laden jacket attacked a police compound but was shot before he could enter the main building. Two officers died and six were wounded in the explosion, police said.
Also Sunday, police in the southern city of Karachi said they arrested a would-be bomber allegedly linked to Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud. Explosives and bomb-laden jackets were found during the morning raid, senior police official Javed Bukhari said.
"He was planning to carry out large attacks in Karachi with other accomplices, but we have averted the attempt," Bukhari said.
Source: AP News