14 militants killed; Pakistan airports on alert over threats

Helicopter gunships on Thursday pounded militant positions along the Afghan border, leaving 14 Taliban rebels dead, as airports in all of Pakistan's major cities were put on alert over threats of suicide bombings, officials said.

The militant hideouts were targeted in the Rashakai, Tang Khata and Loi Sam areas of the Bajaur district, where clashes erupted in August when scores of heavily armed rebels attacked a checkpoint on a strategic hilltop along a route used by militants to cross into Afghanistan and attack international forces.

"According to preliminary reports, at least 14 miscreants were killed and numerous injured in today's shelling," a security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, using the term Pakistani officials employ to refer to militants.

On Wednesday, intense fighting in Bajaur resulted in the death of seven troops and 25 militants, military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said.

Dozens of fighters attacked the troops stationed at a government school building in the Rashakai area. The two sides exchanged rocket and mortar fire during the hours-long fighting, after which military helicopters and jets bombarded the militants.

The fighting in Bajaur, a sanctuary of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, has so far left more than 800 militants and dozens of troops dead since August while more than 250,000 people have been displaced.

Pakistan is under intense pressure to eliminate sanctuaries of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in its tribal region, but the militants have responded by intensifying suicide attacks across the country.

Last weekend's suicide truck bombing at Islamabad's Marriott Hotel, which killed 53 people and injured more than 25, was followed by a car bombing of a paramilitary checkpoint Monday in the Swat district of North-West Frontier Province, leaving nine Frontier Corps soldiers dead.

On Wednesday, a pedestrian suicide bomber blew himself up next to a security convoy in Quetta, the capital of south-western Balochistan province. A schoolgirl died and 17 people, including 13 troops, were wounded.

A state of emergency was declared Thursday at Islamabad airport, which was recently named after slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, after a warning that a suicide bomber could strike the facility located outside the capital city.

"There is no suicide bomber inside the airport but, a threat still exits," top civilian security official, Rehman Malik, was quoted as saying by the English-language DawnNews television channel.

Malik said overall security had also been enhanced at major airports across the country.

"The high level of security has not affected the flight operations and the situation is normal," said the Islamabad airport manager, Ayaz Jadoon.

Security personnel have been asked to step up surveillance and only allow passengers with valid tickets to enter the premises, he added.

DawnNews also said the US embassy in Islamabad had suspended its consular services, including visa operations. Britain took similar action earlier this week and British Airways suspended its flights in and out of the country after the Marriott blast.

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