MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani forces backed by helicopter gunships attacked a militant hideout in a major al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary on the Afghan border on Friday, killing two militants, officials said.
The attack in North Waziristan coincided with a visit by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates aimed at persuading Pakistan to expand its military campaign against Afghan militants in lawless ethnic Pashtun lands who cross the border to fight U.S. troops.
“An intense exchange of fire is going on between militants and the security forces,” said an intelligence official in the region who declined to be identified.
Residents said authorities had imposed a curfew as security forces attacked the militants on the outskirts of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan.
Two militants had been killed, another security official said.
Pakistan’s army launched an offensive in neighbouring South Waziristan in October against al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban attacking the state but has it resisted U.S. pressure to expand its campaign to Afghan Taliban factions.
North Waziristan is a stronghold of Afghan Taliban and their al Qaeda allies.
Despite the U.S. pressure to tackle the factions in North Waziristan and elsewhere, the military ruled out on Thursday any new offensive for up to a year, saying it had to consolidate its gains in South Waziristan.
But analysts say Pakistan may launch surgical strikes against militants in North Waziristan to deflect U.S. pressure.
“There is a possibility that they will keep on carrying out operations on a limited scale,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a newspaper editor and an expert on militant affairs, said.
Gates, on his first visit to Pakistan since U.S. President Barack Obama came to office, praised Pakistan’s offensive against its Taliban and assured it of U.S. support.
Gates was also careful not to repeat the usual U.S. call for Pakistan to “do more” in the fight against militants, a demand that has infuriated Pakistan which has lost about 2,000 soldiers fighting militants.
The United States wanted to end a “trust deficit” that he said had hampered cooperation against Islamist militancy, Gates told young army officers on Friday.
Analysts say Pakistan sees the Afghan Taliban as a tool to counter the growing influence of old rival India in Afghanistan and as a potential ally if U.S. forces withdraw and, as many Pakistanis fear, again leave that country in chaos.
Reporting by Haji Mujtaba; Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sanjeev Miglani