By Griff Witte and Imtiaz Ali
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 17, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan. 16 -- Hundreds of insurgent fighters mounted a brazen assault on a key fort in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, seizing it from security forces in a battle that left at least 47 people dead, the military said.
The attack was carried out by fighters loyal to Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who has been blamed by Pakistani authorities for a succession of high-profile strikes, including the assassination last month of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Mehsud and the military have been engaged in an intensifying battle for territory in the country's volatile northwest, and Wednesday's clash reflected the Taliban commander's growing strength, as well as the Pakistani government's struggle to confront him.
The assault, in the remote tribal region of South Waziristan, began Wednesday just after midnight when 200 Mehsud fighters converged on Sararogha Fort, barraging it with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
The fort was manned by 42 soldiers from Pakistan's Frontier Corps, and the troops initially succeeded in repelling the attack by using heavy artillery fire, according to a military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. But an hour and a half later, the Taliban fighters returned, this time in greater numbers -- between 300 and 400.
"The second attack was more fierce and more intense," Abbas said.
The insurgents used explosives to blow holes in the fort's outer walls, streamed in and began fighting the soldiers hand-to-hand. Seven troops were killed, 15 managed to escape and an additional 20 were unaccounted for, Abbas said. There were fears Wednesday night that they had been taken hostage, a common tactic of Mehsud.
Abbas said 40 insurgents were killed in the battle.
A purported spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban disputed the military's numbers. "We have killed 16 soldiers and have kidnapped 12, while just two of our fighters have been killed in this clash," Maulvi Omar told the BBC's Pashto-language service.
While Mehsud has carried out a string of devastating attacks in recent months, the decision to assault the fort head-on reflected an even bolder strategy than he has exhibited before.
In the past, Mehsud's fighters have carried out suicide attacks on military convoys, as well as hit-and-run strikes against Pakistani government checkpoints and facilities. But as of Wednesday night, his forces seemed intent on holding on to the fort.
"It really carries a lot of significance," said Fazal Rahim Marwat, a professor at Peshawar University who has studied the Taliban movement in Pakistan. "This is another daring step on the part of the militants, and it seems that they are getting stronger and bolder with the passage of time."
Over a century old, Sararogha Fort is one of the few symbols of government authority in South Waziristan, an area where Pakistan has never succeeded in exerting much control.
The region is a haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters and has been identified by Western intelligence officials as an international headquarters for Islamic extremist groups.
The Pakistani government has struggled to find a strategy to counter the threat -- alternately combating it with military force and signing peace deals. Crucial truces in both North and South Waziristan collapsed last summer, spurring a surge in attacks that have claimed hundreds of lives throughout the country.
A Western military official with knowledge of extremist groups on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border estimated this week that Mehsud, who has allied himself with al-Qaeda, has about 5,000 hard-core fighters at his disposal.
But the official also said Mehsud has purposely exaggerated his own influence. "A lot more is attributed to him than I think he's capable of," the official said.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has blamed Bhutto's assassination on Mehsud, and the government has produced an audio recording that it says implicates him. But Bhutto's supporters have said they believe that explanation is intended to cover for others, including current and former government officials.
Pakistan has repeatedly tried and failed to kill Mehsud. It has also attempted to turn rival tribal commanders in the area against him, with limited success.
Wednesday's attack represented yet another setback for the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that is supposed to be on the front lines of Pakistan's counterinsurgency campaign but has taken heavy losses and proved generally overmatched.
The United States has made beefing up the Frontier Corps a priority and is investing in a new program to train and equip the force.
Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters in Florida on Wednesday that Pakistan appeared more welcoming of U.S. counterinsurgency training and advice than it had been in the past.
"My sense is, there is an increased willingness to address these problems," he said. "And we're going to try to help them."
Ali reported from Peshawar.