May 3, 2009 in Nation/World

Militants strike Pakistan security station; 18 die

Mark Magnier Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Dozens of militants attacked a Pakistani security outpost Saturday in an area near the Afghan border, leaving 18 people dead and adding another trouble spot to the nation’s extended list.

At a time when Pakistan’s army has gone on the offensive against Taliban fighters spreading out from the Swat Valley, the attack called into question how effective and long-lasting some of its efforts may be.

Saturday’s attack in the northwestern Mohmand tribal region took place in an area where the military previously claimed it had driven out the militants and dismantled various mini-states.

The clash underscored the frustration Pakistan’s traditionally trained and organized army faces battling a fluid insurgency. It also raises questions about why the military hasn’t done more to change its orientation away from conventional warfare or at least build up its capacity to battle both kinds of foes.

The army said in a statement Saturday that about 100 insurgents attacked the Spinal Tangi post before sunrise.

“Sixteen militants were killed in retaliatory fire,” the statement read, while two members of the security forces also died.

The area is strategically important given its proximity to Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province.

“Peshawar is increasingly endangered and encircled,” said a Western diplomat in Pakistan. “It’s a troubled map.”

Militants retain control of much of the tribal belt along the mountainous frontier, an area where some U.S. officials believe Osama bin Laden is hiding and where, in some quarters, he still commands respect.

“I met Osama bin Laden in 2000,” said Sajid Mazai, 30, an Afghan from the mountainous Tora Bora area straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border who works in electronics in Lahore. “His face was bright, he was impressive and had a real moral authority. I think he’s still alive.”

In other developments, a clash in the Swat Valley threatened to further weaken a controversial peace deal in the former tourist destination.

The army said Saturday that troops exchanged fire with militants who refused to stop their jeep at a checkpoint in Swat, adding that five militants were detained while trying to plant a bomb.

Swat is the object of a peace agreement reached in February between local Taliban and authorities. Under its terms, extremists were allowed to impose sharia, or Islamic law, over the valley and neighboring areas in return for putting down their weapons.

Supporters of the deal said it would bring peace to the area after years of bloodshed. Critics said it would only embolden radicals. In recent months in Swat, girls schools have been destroyed, local police beheaded and moral campaigns organized against unmarried men and women appearing together.

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