Hundreds of armed militants stormed a border fort overnight Wednesday in Pakistan's tribal belt, killing at least seven border guards. The militants then abandoned the colonial-era fort on the border in South Waziristan, a lawless zone that US officials say is a launching pad for Taliban and Al Qaeda attacks on Western troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
Islamic militants used explosives to breach the fort where about 40 guards were stationed, according to the Pakistan Army. Most of the guards fled, and others were reported missing after the firefight. The militants left the fort later the same day, melting back into the rugged mountains of northwest Pakistan.
The attack is a setback for Pakistan's Army the Associated Press reports. Fifteen guards fled to safety at another Army base. Another 20 were listed as missing, but five were later found. The military claimed that 50 militants died in the firefight, a claim denied by a militant spokesman who said two had died in the assault.
The insurgents who seized the Sararogha Fort were said to be followers of Baitullah Mehsud, an Islamic hard-liner. Since December, Mr. Mehsud has been the sole leader of an umbrella group of Taliban sympathizers and is also thought to have links to Al Qaeda.
Musharraf has blamed Mehsud's movement, Tehrik-e-Taliban, for 19 suicide attacks that killed more than 450 people over the last three months. Mehsud, labeled enemy No. 1 by the government, also masterminded the brazen capture of 213 Pakistani soldiers last August.
The Washington Post said Pakistani authorities have also linked Mehsud to the Dec. 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud's fighters have targeted Pakistani troops in South Waziristan with hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings as the battle for territory intensifies.
While an Army spokesman said the number of militants was around 200, the BBC said that local officials and other reports indicate an attack force closer to 1,000. This is the first time that militants have captured a fort in Pakistan and that is unsettling for authorities as they prepare to hold parliamentary elections next month, the BBC said.
The militants took several of the guards hostage and seized weapons and communication equipment from the fort, the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn reported. The assault began around 9 p.m. Tuesday with rocket and mortar fire and continued during the night, the newspaper reported.
The fort was manned by the Frontiers Corps, an 80,000-strong paramilitary force recruited from local tribesmen. The US military has announced plans to train and equip these forces as part of a strategy to counter militancy in the semiautonomous tribal region, said The Globe and Mail.
Reuters reports that Navy Adm. William Fallon, head of the US Central Command, said Wednesday that he believed Pakistan was ready for greater US counterinsurgency assistance. But he gave no details of that support, which is politically sensitive in Pakistan, where many strongly oppose the deployment of US troops. Admiral Fallon said he was encouraged by his conversations with Pakistan's new Army chief, Gen. Ashfaz Kayani, who took over in November after President Pervez Musharraf resigned from the post.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that Defense Secretary Robert Gates fears inexperienced NATO troops are using inappropriate tactics to contain Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan. In an interview, Mr. Gates said NATO troops weren't properly trained for counterinsurgency operations. His comments follow a recent decision to deploy temporarily 3,200 US Marines in the south in response to rising violence there.
Gates has publicly criticized European allies in the past for failing to send adequate numbers of troops and helicopters to the Afghan mission. But concerns about strategy and tactics are usually contained within military and diplomatic channels.
A US government spokesman said Thursday that Gates' comments were targeted at all NATO members, reports Britian news agency The Press Association. The conciliatory statement came as some European allies reacted angrily to a perceived slur on their troops. A lawmaker called Gates's comments "bloody outrageous" while the Dutch government called in the US ambassador for a clarification.
[Editor's note: The original headline misidentified the location of the Pakistani fort.]