PESHAWAR: Clashes between Taliban fighters and the army in Pakistan’s northwest tribal belt intensified today, as rebels fired rockets and the military launched fresh air strikes, officials said.

Up to 15 people are reported to have been killed as fighter jets pounded the strongholds and hideouts of feared warlord Baitullah Mehsud, holed up in the lawless region where the military are steeling for a full-scale offensive.

Security forces say they are wrapping up an eight-week campaign against Islamist militants in the northwest Swat valley and have opened up a second front against Taliban chief Mehsud and his network along the Afghan border.

Security officials said Pakistani fighter jets targeted four villages today in South Waziristan where Mehsud’s militants are believed to be hiding.

“Eleven militants were killed and four others wounded when fighter jets pounded the compound of a local tribesman Malik Ameer in Kaniguram village, which was being used by rebels,” said a security official in the area.

Just on the border between North and South Waziristan, fighter jets bombed the home of a local Taliban commander killing four people including two women, and wounding eight others, intelligence and tribal police officials said.

“Jet planes bombed the house of Jalal Afghani. According to my information militants were using this house,” said tribal police official Amanullah Wazir.

“Two militants were killed and eight injured. Two others killed in the bombing were women — maybe they were family members,” he told AFP.

Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal regions are wracked with violence and are known as a hub for Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels who fled across the border to escape the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

South Waziristan is Mehsud’s stronghold, and Washington, which has been a vocal supporter of Islamabad’s anti-Taliban push, alleges that Al-Qaeda fighters are in the region

plotting attacks on Western

targets.

Pakistani fighter jets stepped up air raids in Waziristan early this month, apparently in preparation for a full-scale military onslaught into the hostile peaks

to track down and eliminate Mehsud and his fighters.

Overnight, troops came under attack in the region.

“Rockets fired from unknown locations hit camps of security forces in the rugged mountainous tribal regions of North and South Waziristan last night,” said a security official in the area.

There were no reports of deaths in the attacks.

In a further sign that insurgents were stepping up resistance in the tribal belt, a military convoy was ambushed about 15 kilometres west of North Waziristan’s main town Miranshah, prompting a two-hour gunfight.

“Preliminary information said three soldiers were wounded while militants suffered heavy losses in the retaliatory fire,”

said a security official who did not want to be named as he was not authorised to talk to the

media.

The army says that more than 1,500 insurgents and 128 soldiers have been killed in operations the military launched in the northwestern districts of Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and Swat on May 8.

Such tolls are impossible to be verified independently.

Today, on the border of Swat Valley, two policemen were killed in a suicide blast.

“An explosion occurred in a small truck when it reached the Dandai bridge in Shangla district (of Swat) ... It was a suicide attack,” Shangla district police chief Gul Wali Khan told AFP.

“Two policemen were martyred and three others were injured in the bombing.” Security forces launched the offensive to dislodge Taliban guerrillas from the three districts after rebels flouted a peace deal and thrust towards the capital Islamabad in early April.

Analysts say the army will face a tougher task uprooting militants from the tribal belt, where Taliban fighters are entrenched in the mountains and government holds little sway.