Nov 2, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- Helicopter gunships pounded pro-Taliban militants in the mountains of northwest Pakistan on Thursday, reportedly killing as many as 70 in an increasingly bloody conflict between the government and Islamist forces.
Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, meanwhile, flew to the United Arab Emirates to visit family two weeks after assassins tried to kill her when she returned from self-exile to lead her party in parliamentary elections. A spokesman said the former premier was expected back in a week.
Pakistan has been rocked by suicide bombings and clashes between security forces and militants in recent weeks, deepening unease ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on the validity of the October 6 presidential victory by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally.
There are fears Musharraf (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/Pervez_Musharraf) could impose a state of emergency or martial law if the judges rule against another five-year term, jeopardizing the country's transition to civilian rule and perhaps worsening instability as the government confronts Islamic militants.
Violence in the Swat district, where a militant cleric is trying to enforce Taliban-style rule, underlines the expansion of Islamist movements in northwestern Pakistan (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/Pakistan) near the Afghan border that is challenging Musharraf's control.
Government officials say militants account for most of 180 people killed in fighting around Swat since 2,500 militiamen from the region's paramilitary Frontier Constabulary deployed last week to tackle the followers of cleric Maulana Fazlullah (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/Maulana_Fazlullah).
In fighting Thursday, militants attacked police posts before dawn, and security forces responded with fire from mortars, assault rifles and helicopter gunships. The mountainous region, long known as a tourist resort, is about 80 miles (129 km) northwest of the capital, Islamabad.
"According to the information I have from police and Frontier Constabulary, between 60 to 70 miscreants were killed in Swat's areas of Khawaza Khela today," the army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, said, as thousands of people who fled the days of fighting began setting up tent camps.
Sirajuddin, a spokesman for the militants who goes by only one name, said that only two of their fighters had died. He claimed 40 government fighters had surrendered, which Pakistani authorities denied.
"Security forces should join us and should not kill their Muslim brothers and sisters just for money and at behest of their non-Muslim masters," Sirajuddin told The Associated Press.
He also said two foreigners had been captured by militants in the same area, though he could not confirm reports they were journalists or give their nationalities. Neither the local government nor the Pakistan army confirmed the abductions.
Also Thursday, a suicide bomber killed eight people in an attack on an air force bus in Sargodha, about 125 miles (201 km) south of Islamabad, air force spokesman Sarfraz Ahmed said. All the dead were air force employees, said Sahid Malik, an official at the hospital treating wounded.
It was the latest in a series of such attacks on security forces, including a suicide bombing near Musharraf's army office that killed seven people Tuesday. There have been no claims of responsibility, but the attacks are blamed on Islamic extremists.
Musharraf is under pressure from Washington to crack down on pro-Taliban and al Qaeda fighters hiding in the rugged border regions near Afghanistan.
The Supreme Court, which emerged this year as the main check on Musharraf's dominance, took note Thursday of the rumors about possible martial law, saying such worries would not color its decision.
"No threat will have any effect on this bench, whether it is martial law or (state of) emergency," judge Javed Iqbal said before adjourning until Friday. "Whatever will happen, it will be according to the constitution."
Some opposition parties argue that Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup eight years ago, should have been disqualified from the presidential vote by national and provincial legislators because he also holds the powerful post of army chief.
With his popularity fading, Musharraf agreed to drop corruption charges against Bhutto (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/Benazir_Bhutto) so she could return to Pakistan to run in parliamentary elections slated for January.
He also promised to resign as army chief if the Supreme Court upholds his presidential victory and has been negotiating with Bhutto about forming a pro-Western political alliance for the election.
Bhutto, daughter of a popular former premier executed by the military in 1979, has a wide and fervent base of supporters. More than 150,000 people turned out for her homecoming on October 18, which was targeted by a suicide bombing attack that killed 140 people.