Besides soldiers and fighters, 34 civilians have died and 70 more seriously wounded in the ongoing violence.

Policemen killed

Police said a bomb exploded at a bridge in Swat valley late on Saturday, killing at least nine security personnel and wounding several others.

The AFP news agency quoted Bashir Khan, a police officer, as saying that the remote-controlled bomb hit a vehicle travelling from the police headquarters in Mingora, the main town in Swat valley, carrying money to pay the salaries of the staff in the nearby town of Kabal.

Khan said the bomb was planted at a bridge between the two towns and that some of the wounded policemen are in serious condition.

Khalid Nasim, a senior police officer, said the attack killed six police officers and three paramilitary soldiers.

He said four others were wounded.

Initially police said two other officers were missing and feared abducted, but they were later accounted for.

Local residents have been caught in the crossfire since fighting broke out afresh on Wednesday.

At least 12 civilians, including seven members of the same family, were killed on Thursday alone.

The previous day, five soldiers and 25 fighters were killed in a gun battle sparked by an attack on a security checkpoint.

The same day, mortars fired from a Pakistani force helicopters landed on a house.

Neighbourly relations

As fighting raged in the Swat valley, Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's prime minister, was in Sri Lanka attending a regional conference where terrorism was the main topic of discussion.

In video

Victims of the Swat Valley fighting
 

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, told the summit of South Asian leaders, which included Gilani, on Saturday that "terrorism" was gaining strength across the border in Pakistan.

"In Pakistan, terrorism and its sanctuaries are gaining a deeper grip as demonstrated by the tragic assassination of shaheed [martyr] Benazir Bhutto," he said.

"While existing on the absolute fringes of our tolerant and peace loving societies, terrorists in our region receive institutional nurturing and support.

"It is this embedded nature of terrorists that make it a much more sinister threat."

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have sharply deteriorated in recent months, with Afghan officials repeatedly accusing Pakistani agents of secretly backing Taliban members fighting Afghan and foreign troops on Afghan soil.

Taliban threat

Even as its intelligence services face accusations of complicity, Pakistan's government forces are battling pro-Taliban groups in the Swat area.

The military has used helicopter gunships to pound Taliban fighter positions, while Taliban fighters have set fire to government buildings.

Civilians have not been spared by the ongoing fighting in Swat valley [AFP]
Two girls' schools were attacked on Thursday night by the fighters, who threatened to expand their onslaught to include other government-linked installations.

Haji Muslim Khan, the spokesman for one of the largest pro-Taliban groups in the Swat valley, said that the trend would continue throughout Pakistan.

"Who killed the innocent people they are bombing and they are shelling from helicopters? It is the Pakistani army," he told Al Jazeera.

"I don't want America in my country and I don't want our soldiers to work for America and I want the rules and regulations of Islamic sharia.

"Our government is following rules and regulations of America and we want to change it."

The warning follows a statement by Maulana Fazlullah, the Pakistan Taliban's leader in Swat with a four million rupee ($56,000) bounty on his head, that the group has an army of suicide bombers that could strike across the country at any moment.

He told Al Jazeera recently that the Pakistani Taliban has the capacity to take control of the entire Swat valley.

Peace deal collapse

The intense fighting in Swat has brought the May peace agreement between the Pakistani government and pro-Taliban fighters to the brink of collapse.

Under the deal, the Pakistan government agreed to gradually pull out troops and introduce an Islamic justice system.

In exchange, the Taliban said they would halt attacks and surrender arms.

Zahid Hussain, an expert on Pakistani religious groups, told Al Jazeera that the deal was born of failure.

"I think from the beginning it was very clear that it would not work," he said.

"While the deal was signed in May, there has not been a cessation of hostilities, and I think this period only displayed the fighters' capability to further arm and organise themselves."

Al-Qaeda rumour

In other news from the region, US television channel CBS said it had obtained an intercepted letter from a pro-Taliban commander urgently requesting a doctor to treat Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's deputy leader, following an attack in northwest Pakistan last week.

A senior military official based in the area said he was checking the CBS report.

"We have seen the media report that al-Zawahiri was killed or wounded in the July 28 strike. We are investigating the authenticity of the report," the official said.

Major-General Athar Abbas, the chief Pakistani military spokesman, said that the military had no information about the report.

"There is no evidence or information in this regard. We have no reliable information," told said on Saturday.

CBS said the July 29 letter, written by Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban leader, carried his seal and signature, saying al-Zawahiri was in "severe pain" and his "injuries are infected".