ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Hundreds of Islamic militants overran and occupied a fort near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan in a bold assault that left as many as 47 people dead.
The loss of the Sararogha Fort was a significant blow to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's efforts to re-establish control over the frontier region of South Waziristan, which has become a base for Taliban and al Qaida operations.
Pakistan's northwestern border with Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants fled after a U.S. assault drove them out of Afghanistan in 2001, is fast overtaking Iraq as the central front in the Bush administration's war on terrorism. U.S. officials are increasingly worried that if militants seize control of the region, they could establish an even more secure terrorist base than the one they already have and further destabilize Pakistan's shaky central government.
A group of militants led by Baitullah Mehsud, a local chief who Pakistani authorities charge was behind last month's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, claimed responsibility for the attack. The leader of the Mehsud tribe that runs much of South Warizistan, Mehsud commands thousands of men and heads the Pakistani version of the Taliban. Pakistani authorities say he also is closely linked to al Qaida.
"This was a very intense attack, and the number of the militants this time was quite large," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the Pakistani army spokesman.
"I'm surprised at this attack. They (tribal militants) don't usually come in large numbers," said Khalid Aziz, a former provincial administrator and political analyst based in Peshawar. "Are they trying to fight like an army?"
Aziz said the attack was the first large-scale military movement by the militants and was a departure from the militants' usual guerrilla tactics. He said it might be a signal that a major new jihad — Islamic holy war — against the U.S.-backed Pakistani government had begun.
Abbas said that on Tuesday night some 200 militants attacked the colonial-era frontier fort, which was defended by a platoon of 42 men from the government's paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), but were repulsed by artillery and small-arms fire.
An hour and a half later, more than 300 militants returned and surrounded the fort, one of about 20 government forts in South Waziristan, blew a hole in one wall and stormed it. Abbas said that 40 militants were killed, seven soldiers were dead and 20 were missing, and 15 escaped to the nearest Pakistan military outpost.
Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for Mehsud, claimed that 16 soldiers were killed and 12 were taken hostage. He claimed that only two Pakistani Taliban died in the operation.
"This (fort) was the only presence of the FC within the heartland of Mehsud territory," said retired Brigadier Mehmood Shah, who previously was the top civil servant in the Federally Administered Tribal Area. "Baitullah Mehsud wants to take over complete control of the area."
Although the Pakistani army has 12,000 men stationed in South Waziristan, it appears that no reinforcements or helicopter gunships were dispatched to the Sararogha Fort during the four-hour assault.
It's unclear how long the militants could hold the fort, especially if Pakistani troops return in force, but analysts said the operation was largely symbolic.
Musharraf's government has oscillated between trying to talk peace with the frontier tribes and all-out military action. The Bush administration opposes negotiations with the Islamists and was critical of a short-lived 2006 peace treaty between the government and the tribesmen.
"There doesn't seem to be a long-term policy" in Waziristan, said Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi, a military analyst based in Lahore. "It's just deal with the situation and try to keep things under control."
Rizvi said that a political channel was needed to agree to terms with tribal leaders.
"Otherwise, you'll end up with a war that lasts years," he said. "Pakistan will be bogged down, like the U.S. is in Afghanistan."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)