Air strikes kill 9 in tribal Pak

MIRANSHAH: Pakistani air strikes killed nine suspected militants Sunday, police and security officials said, in an ongoing bombardment aimed at weakening Taliban strongholds in the tribal northwest.

Meanwhile army officials said a close aide of Maulana Fazlullah -- the Taliban commander in northwest Swat valley -- was killed in separate combat as the military wrapped up a more than two-month operation in the region.

Security forces have vowed to follow up the Swat campaign with an offensive against Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud and his network in the lawless tribal belt, where Washington alleges Al-Qaeda fighters are also hiding out.

At least six alleged rebels linked to the hardline Taliban were killed in North Waziristan, while three more died in the Orakzai tribal district near the site of a military helicopter crash Friday which killed 26 security personnel.

"Six or seven militants were killed and four were injured when jet fighters bombed Taliban hideouts in different parts of Datta Khel," in North Waziristan, Aziz Khan, a tribal police official, told AFP by telephone.

The air strikes Sunday morning hit the Bagan, Mohammad Khel and Syed Abad areas, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) west of Miranshah, the main district town in the semi-autonomous mountain region bordering Afghanistan.

An intelligence official in Miranshah confirmed the bombing and said they were still gathering information on casualties. Residents of the targeted areas said they saw six dead bodies, but added that civilians were also hurt.

"We were in our houses when war planes bombed the area," local resident Mahmood Gul told AFP from Miranshah's main hospital, where he had taken his young son for treatment for shrapnel wounds.

In the Orakzai region on Sunday, gunship helicopters shelled militant positions in the Oblan and Torchapper areas.

"At least three militants were killed and many injured in the shelling," a military official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to disclose details of the operation to the media.

The bombardment hit close to the site of Friday's deadly crash, which the military blamed on a technical fault.

The Taliban, however, claim to have shot down the MI-17 in retaliation for the start of military operations in South Waziristan.

Security forces are wrapping up a more than two-month-long campaign to dislodge Taliban fighters from Swat valley, and are readying for a second front in the tribal region targeting Mehsud.

Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP on Sunday that the military had killed Abu Jandal, a commander loyal to Fazlullah, on the outskirts of Swat's main town Mingora.

"Ehsan, alias Abu Jandal, was killed two days earlier in Qambar area. He was a mid-level commander," said Abbas. Security sources in the area confirmed the death, and said Jandal was a close aide of the firebrand cleric.

Fazlullah has a 600,000-dollar government bounty on his head, and although the interior minister has said he is injured and surrounded, the military have refused to confirm reports of his imminent death or capture.

In other unrest Sunday, a nine-year-old girl was killed and ten other people wounded when a roadside bomb was remotely-detonated in Upper Dir district, which neighbours Swat, said local police chief Mohammad Ijaz Khan.