PARACHINAR, Pakistan — Helicopter gunships pummeled a key Taliban commander's bases in Pakistan's northwest, killing at least 12 insurgents Thursday as government forces ratcheted up pressure on the militants following their top leader's reported death, officials said.
Military helicopters destroyed several bases and hide-outs Thursday morning near the Kurram and Aurakzai tribal regions run by militant commander Hakimullah Mehsud, three intelligence officials said.
Hakimullah Mehsud is a clansman and potential successor to Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was reported killed in a CIA missile strike on Aug. 5.
Thursday's attacks were on bases in tribal areas near the Afghan border, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of the Mehsud clan's main base in south Waziristan.
The intelligence officials said troops saw the bodies from the air but did not retrieve them. Several militants were also wounded, and the casualties could rise because some people were believed to be still buried under the rubble of their hide-outs, said the officials, who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Pakistan's military redoubled its fight against the Pakistani Taliban – a loose federation of Islamist groups with various tribal and regional factions – in April after militants broke a peace deal and took over a district about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad.
While mostly based in the tribal areas in the northwest, the militants had in recent years spread eastward into the one-time tourist haven of Swat Valley, executing police and burning down girls' schools in attempts to force the population to adhere to their hard-line interpretation of Islam.
The military took back control of Swat after a two-month assault, and now government forces have increasingly targeted the Taliban strongholds in the tribal belt, where the militants are also believed to give shelter to al-Qaida leaders and help plan attacks on U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
For years, Pakistan tolerated its homegrown militancy, but increased attacks inside Pakistan – reportedly masterminded by Baitullah Mehsud at the urging of his al-Qaida allies – forced the government to launch large-scale strikes against them.
Militant attacks have killed at least 2,686 Pakistani people since 2008, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the country's National Assembly on Thursday.
Malik said there have been 1,367 militant attacks since the beginning of last year, the majority of them in North West Frontier Province – where Swat lies – and in the tribal areas next to Afghanistan.
The government has also persuaded other tribal warlords to turn against the Taliban. On Wednesday, fierce clashes erupted after fighters loyal to Baitullah Mehsud attacked the forces of a pro-government warlord, Turkistan Bitani, on the fringes of the South Waziristan region. At least 70 people were reported killed.
Pakistan's army later sent in helicopter gunships as reinforcements to pound about 300 Taliban fighters attacking Bitani's mountain stronghold, two intelligence officials said.
It was impossible to independently confirm the death toll, as the fighting was in a remote mountainous area that is off-limits to journalists.
The fighting followed days of confusion and competing claims over Baitullah Mehsud's fate. While U.S. and Pakistani officials say they are almost certain he is dead, Taliban commanders insist he is alive.
Baitullah Mehsud and his followers have been the target of both U.S. and Pakistani operations aimed at ridding the country's volatile northwest of militants. Washington has increased its focus on Pakistan's rugged tribal regions because they provide safe haven for insurgents fighting international forces across the border in Afghanistan.
Local tribal leaders in some parts of northwestern Pakistan have also formed private militias, known as lashkars, specifically to fight against the Taliban. They have often been targeted by the militants, and on Thursday, two intelligence officials said a suicide bomber killed pro-government lashkar leader Malik Khadeen, who was instrumental in fighting Uzbek militants operating with the Taliban in South Waziristan.
Two of Khadeen's relatives were also killed and another four people seriously wounded in the attack, in which a suicide bomber rammed his motorcycle into Khadeen's car, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Farther north in the Bajur tribal area, authorities found the bodies of two anti-Taliban lashkar leaders near a security checkpoint, said local government official Saad Ullah. The two lashkar commanders, Malik Sehar Gul and Malik Jalindhar, had been kidnapped the night before.
Sporadic violence also continues in Swat and the surrounding areas. The military said Thursday that separate search operations in the area led to one militant being killed and another 12 arrested, including a local commander, while another two turned themselves in.
Separately in Baluchistan province, where ethnic Baluch militants have waged a low-level insurgency for decades, paramilitary forces seized a cache of explosives and rockets, Frontier Constabulary spokesman Murtaza Baig said.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad, Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Sattar Kakar in Quetta and Habib Khan in Khar contributed to this report.