Taliban fighters, thwarted in their attempt to kidnap a tribal militia leader, beheaded one of the man's rescuers in front of a gathered crowd, then fought a running battle with tribesmen that left as many as 30 people dead, police said.
The assailants grabbed militia chief Pir Samiullah at his home in the Swat region yesterday and were hustling him to a getaway car when dozens of local tribesmen confronted them and snatched him back, regional police chief Dilawar Bangash said.
Bangash said hundreds of Taliban later returned, seized three members of the militia and beheaded one of them on a road before a large crowd.
The militias, known as lashkars, have been compared to the so-called awakening councils that have helped US forces turn the tables against al-Qaida in Iraq. Pakistan's government has cited them as proof it can root out militants waging an insurgency in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
At the beheading, Taliban commander Mullah Shamsher told onlookers "this was a lesson for anyone who tried to oppose them," Bangash said, citing witnesses. The militia gathered men from the surrounding area who engaged the Taliban in an hours-long gunbattle.
Bangash said 20 militants including Shamsher, six militiamen and four bystanders were killed and another police official said several tribesmen were reported missing.
Muslim Khan, a militant spokesman contacted by telephone, confirmed a clash but said only three Taliban died. He claimed 12 tribesmen were killed and 62 were abducted.
"Our tribal brothers, those who are patriots, have broken with them (the militants), and lashkars are fighting against those involved in terrorism," Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Sunday.
Yet many doubt the ramshackle forces can face down heavily armed insurgents who have seized swaths of Pakistan's border belt, forged ties with al-Qaida, and targeted pro-government elders with suicide bombings and kidnappings.
Officials deny they are arming the militias, though observers suspect that they at least receive government funding.
Insecurity and government restrictions make it virtually impossible to verify accounts of the fighting raging mainly in Swat and nearby regions on the Afghan border.
Jamil Khan, a government representative in Bajur, said eight insurgents died there when helicopters and artillery shelled several areas on Sunday. Three more insurgents died in a gunbattle in the village of Tang Khata, Khan said. He said there were no troop casualties.
In the neighboring Mohmand region, a suicide car bomber injured five security personnel at a checkpoint, government official Said Ahmed Jan said.
Pakistan's army launched an offensive in Bajur in August after declaring it a "mega-sanctuary" for militants and a major infiltration route into Afghanistan.
The operation has drawn praise from US officials, but faces criticism in Pakistan, where many blame their country's alliance with the United States for escalating violence on their own soil.
"It seems our army is committed to creating a separatist movement" in the ethnic Pashtun-dominated northwest," Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the head of Pakistan's largest Islamist party, told supporters in the eastern city of Lahore. "It is committed to shed the blood of our own people to fulfill American designs."Reuse content