Pakistani helicopter gunships engaged in a bitter offensive against militants in a northwest tribal region struck targets in a neighboring area Sunday, a sign that the conflict may be widening to other parts of the rugged zone bordering Afghanistan, The Associated Press reported.
Elsewhere in the northwest, Pakistan temporarily suspended oil tankers and trucks carrying sealed containers from using the Khyber Pass, a move that put pressure on a vital supply line for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The media center for the paramilitary Frontier Corps confirmed Sunday that helicopter gunships, backed by artillery, have been pounding suspected insurgent hideouts in Mohmand tribal area since Saturday.
Mohmand is south of Bajur tribal region, an al-Qaida and Taliban stronghold where the military says a three-month-old offensive has killed more than 1,600 suspected militants.
Speculation has abounded that upon taking control of Bajur, the military would set its sights on Mohmand.
The U.S. has praised Pakistani military offensives against insurgents - a separate one is underway in the northwest's Swat Valley - saying they have helped reduce violence on the Afghan side of the border. American officials have long blamed militants based in Pakistan for planning attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
An official with the media center, who insisted on anonymity in line with military rules, said the strikes were not part of a separate offensive for Mohmand. He would not specify where in Mohmand the aircraft had attacked.
"It is the same operation. There is no new operation," the official said. The Taliban fighters "had substantial casualties."
He did not rule out the possibility of militants leaving Bajur for Mohmand, but added, "Wherever they are, wherever they have strong pockets, we have to and we will flush them out."
The suspension of specific vehicles along the Khyber Pass comes just days after a band of militants hijacked around a dozen trucks whose load included Humvees intended for foreign forces in Afghanistan.
The hijacking near the entrance of the famed pass highlighted the vulnerability of a critical supply line for the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan, whose materials are regularly shipped through Pakistan in unmarked, sealed containers.
Government official Bakhtiar Khan would not say Sunday if trucks destined for American and NATO forces were the target of the suspension imposed late Saturday. However, he said security concerns had prompted the suspension, but that it could be lifted as early as Monday.
"The suspension was made to review the security arrangements and that has already been done," he said. "Along with increasing the security and establishing more checkpoints, we have issued orders to deal with attackers and snatchers more strictly."
Khan said security forces have been told they can fire upon groups of armed men trying to attack or snatch shipments.
Deteriorating security conditions in the northwest are among myriad problems facing U.S.-allied Pakistan. The South Asian nation also is saddled with a sinking economy, and it is taking steps to borrow $7.6 billion from the International Monetary Fund.