Soldiers captured the strategically located hometown of Pakistan’s Taliban chief on Saturday after fierce fighting, officials said, the army’s first major prize as it pushes deeper into a militant stronghold along the Afghan border.
A suspected U.S. missile killed 22 people elsewhere in the northwest, but apparently missed a top Taliban figure, authorities said.
Pakistan’s eight-day-old offensive in the Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold of South Waziristan is considered its most critical test yet in the campaign to stop the spread of violent Islamist extremism in this nuclear-armed, U.S.-allied country. The army operation has prompted a wave of retaliatory attacks by militants this month that have killed some 200 people.
The battle for Kotkai town took several days and involved aerial bombardment as soldiers captured heights around the town. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said troops were now ridding the town of land mines and roadside bombs planted by the insurgents.
Kotkai is symbolically important because it is the hometown of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and one of his top deputies, Qari Hussain. It also lies along the way to the major militant base of Sararogha, making it a strategically helpful catch.
“Thank God, this is the army’s very big success,” Abbas said. “The good news is that (communications) intercepts show that there are differences forging among the Taliban ranks. Their aides are deserting them.”
Pakistan is under intense international pressure to clear its tribal areas of insurgents, many of whom are blamed for attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The government has pressed ahead in South Waziristan despite a wave of violence that has put the nation on edge. Bombings on Friday alone killed 24 people, including 17 headed to a wedding.
The army said on Saturday that three more soldiers had died, putting the army’s death toll at 23, and 21 more militants had been killed, putting their overall death toll at 163.
Access to the tribal belt is severely restricted, making independently verifying the army’s information all but impossible.
The U.S. has launched scores of missile strikes at militant targets in the tribal belt over the past year, killing several top militants including former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud. The latest strike hit Chuhatra village in the tribal region of Bajur, local government official Mohammad Jamil said.
The missile hit a hide-out of the militants that included a tunnel. The target appeared to be Faqir Mohammad, a prominent Taliban leader, but he is believed to have escaped, Jamil said. Most of the 22 killed were Afghan nationals, he said.
Pakistan formally protests the missile strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and raise sympathy for the Taliban, while the U.S. rarely discusses the attacks. Analysts believe the two sides have a secret deal allowing the strikes.
The U.S. has shown no sign of easing the drone-fired attacks even when Pakistan is waging its own fight in the tribal areas. Asked if the missile attacks are a distraction or help, the army spokesman said Pakistan would prefer to go it alone.
“We do not want any assistance or interference from outside,” Abbas said.
He further added that a mysterious explosion Wednesday in North Waziristan - initially described by intelligence officials as a suspected U.S. missile attack - had turned out to be a blast caused when explosives being loaded onto a vehicle accidentally detonated.
The U.N. says some 155,000 civilians have fled the region. The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Saturday that it is worried about civilians left behind, but it has no way to verify claims about their status because it has no presence there.
“We want access both to the areas affected by the fighting and also to the people arrested as part of the operation,” said Sebastien Brack, a Red Cross spokesman in Islamabad.
The army has deployed some 30,000 troops to South Waziristan against about 12,000 Taliban militants, including up to 1,500 foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks and Arabs.