Pakistani jets kill 9 militants in northwest

ISLAMABAD – Government warplanes flattened a suspected Taliban hide-out in the northwest early Saturday, killing nine associates of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, intelligence officials said.

The military has targeted Mehsud and his militant network in recent months in the tribal regions along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. The Taliban leader is accused of orchestrating the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and launching a string of suicide attacks across the country in recent months that have killed more than 100 people.

Early Saturday, fighter jets destroyed hide-outs of Mehsud's deputy Hakim Ullah in the Orakzai region, part of Pakistan's lawless tribal belt. It was unclear whether Ullah was present at the time, said two intelligence officials who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.

The Pakistani military's campaign against Mehsud comes as it pursues another operation against Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley and surrounding districts, also in the northwest. In a statement Saturday, the army said security forces had killed three suspected militants in the valley during the previous 24 hours. Also, one soldier died and three were wounded in the Bannu area, it said.

The continued violence indicates that danger persists in the region, even as the army has declared it largely cleared of militants and thousands of the approximately 2 million people displaced by fighting have started to return.

However, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani dismissed suggestions that the government was sending the refugees back to the region too soon, before security was fully ensured and all Taliban eliminated.

"If we are 200 percent sure that those areas are clear then we send them, otherwise we are not in haste to send them for an adventure," Gilani told reporters Saturday.

Saturday's airstrikes in Orakzai came a day after suspected U.S. missiles killed at least five suspected militants in the nearby tribal region of North Waziristan. The drone strike shows Washington's unwillingness to abandon the tactic even as Pakistani officials say it could hamper their army offensives in the northwest.

Over the past year, the U.S. has fired dozens of missiles on suspected militant positions in northwestern Pakistan. The North and South Waziristan regions of the country's semiautonomous tribal belt have been frequent targets because top Taliban and al-Qaida leaders are believed to be hiding there.

U.S. officials rarely acknowledge or comment on individual strikes, but some have defended the tactic, saying it has killed several top al-Qaida fighters. The U.S. is eager to rid Pakistan of safe havens for militants involved in attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Though many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing the drone-fired missiles, Pakistan formally protests the assaults, saying they violate its sovereignty and stir anger among tribes in the affected areas.