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PARACHINAR, Pakistan (AP) – Militants ambushed Pakistani security forces at checkpoints in two regions close to the Afghan border Saturday, sparking gunbattles that left 22 insurgents and two troops dead, officials said.
Elsewhere in the northwest, a suicide bomber killed a police officer and three passers-by, part of a relentless wave of violence by al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents also blamed for attacks on U.S. and NATO troops across the frontier in Afghanistan.
Government officials Mohammad Yasin and Mohammad Naseem said two troops were wounded in the clashes at checkpoints in the Orakzai and Kurram tribal regions. They said a search and clearance operation launched afterward also seized 25 suspected insurgents.
The force commander in Kurram, Col. Tausif Akhtar, said troops had cleared six villages of Taliban fighters.
Many militants fleeing a Pakistani military offensive in the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan have ended up in the two regions, where they have often targeted government forces.
Washington has welcomed the military campaign but is pushing the Pakistani army to do more to target the Taliban blamed for violence across the border in Afghanistan, especially those based in North Waziristan. The Pakistani army has said it is too taxed to launch another operation right now.
“We have gone in Orakzai and Kurram because they were affecting our operations in South Waziristan,” Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told DawnNews TV on Friday night. “We are too thin on the ground. We are too over-stretched. It is not possible to get into any other area for operations.”
The army deployed some 30,000 troops against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan in mid-October and has retaken many towns in the region. But many fear the militants have just set up in other parts of the vast, lawless border regions and will continue to threaten the Pakistani government and U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Illustrating that threat, a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle laden with explosives into a police station near South Waziristan on Saturday. One officer and three passers-by died in the assault, police chief Farid Khan said.
Eight people were also wounded in Tank, one of the main towns leading to South Waziristan from Punjab province.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Saturday that a paramilitary soldier had been arrested for involvement in the Oct. 5 suicide attack on the U.N. food agency’s office in Islamabad that killed five staffers.
Pakistani Taliban at the time claimed responsibility for targeting the World Food Program, saying the agency’s work was not in “the interest of Muslims.”
Malik didn’t reveal the identity of the man, but said he was also involved in the Dec. 2 suicide attack outside the entrance of the Pakistan navy’s headquarters in Islamabad that killed one guard and wounded 11 other people.
Associated Press writer Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.