ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - 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 yesterday that left as many as 30 people dead, police said.
The assailants grabbed militia chief Pir Samiullah at his home in the Swat region and were hustling him to a car when dozens of tribesmen confronted them and snatched him back, regional police chief Dilawar Bangash said.
Bangash said that hundreds of Taliban fighters 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 U.S. forces turn the tables against al-Qaeda 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 that "this was a lesson for anyone who tried to oppose them," Bangash said, citing witnesses. The militia gathered men from the area who engaged the Taliban in an hours-long gun battle.
Bangash said that 20 militants, including Shamsher, six militiamen and four bystanders were killed. 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 fighters died. He said 12 tribesmen were killed and 62 abducted.
"Our tribal brothers, those who are patriots, have broken with [the militants], and lashkars are fighting against those involved in terrorism," Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said yesterday.
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-Qaeda, and targeted pro-government elders with suicide bombings and kidnappings.
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 yesterday. Three more insurgents died in a gun battle in the village of Tang Khata, Khan said. He said there were no troop casualties.