Islamic extremists attacked and seized a small Pakistani army fort near the Afghan border, leaving at least 22 soldiers dead or missing.
A military spokesman said this morning that the militants had left the fort and disappeared into the surrounding hills. Although the fighters did not gain significant ground in the attack Tuesday night on Sararogha Fort, they did further erode confidence in the U.S.-allied government’s ability to control the frontier area where the Taliban and Al Qaeda flourish.
Attacks on security forces are rising in the volatile tribal region, and Pakistan is reeling from a series of suicide attacks that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and hundreds more, chipping away at President Pervez Musharraf’s prestige before Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.
“The militants are now challenging the army openly. They have become very bold and are consolidating their positions,” Talat Masood, a retired general who is now a political analyst, said Wednesday.
The insurgents who seized the post were said to be followers of Baitullah Mahsud, an Islamic hard-liner who since December has been the sole leader of an umbrella group of Taliban sympathizers and is thought to have links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Musharraf has blamed Mahsud’s movement, Tehrik-i-Taliban, for 19 suicide attacks that killed more than 450 people in the last three months. Mahsud is also suspected of masterminding the capture of 213 soldiers in August.
Fighters have terrorized Pakistan’s northwest, killing hundreds of soldiers, hunting down politicians, beheading women and burning schools that teach girls anything but religion.
In the latest battle, insurgents attacked Sararogha Fort in South Waziristan and chased off its small garrison from the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force.
“About 200 militants charged the fort from four sides,” said the army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. “They broke through the fort’s wall with rockets.”
Fifteen of the soldiers manning the fort reached safety in Jandola, an army base about 10 miles south. Seven others were known dead and 15 were missing, Abbas said.
The military said the defenders killed 50 militants before being overwhelmed. A spokesman for Tehrik-i-Taliban said that only two fighters died and that 16 soldiers were killed and 24 others captured.
There was no way to verify casualty numbers. Both sides have long accused each other of exaggerating such figures.