Government says 60 militants dead as Taliban resist offensive

Pakistani officials say the army has fought fierce battles with heavily armed Taliban fighters after it launched a long-awaited ground offensive in the tribal regions of South Waziristan near the Afghan border.


AFP - Pakistan pounded Taliban bases from the air and bore down on their leader's hometown on Sunday, intensifying a major offensive against the Islamists which it said had killed 60 militants.

More than 100,000 people have fled South Waziristan, part of the tribal belt on the Afghan border that US officials call the most dangerous place on earth, staying with relatives or renting accommodation to escape the fighting.

Thousands of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters are holed up in the tribal belt, where the army says the offensive is concentrated on strongholds of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) movement.

On the second day of the offensive, Taliban armed with rockets and heavy weapons put up strong resistance at Sharwangi, an area of impenetrable forest high in the mountains as fighter jets bombed positions, officials said.

The military said 60 Taliban followers had been killed, although the region is cut off from the outside world and information on militant casualties is impossible to independently verify.

"In last 24 hours, reportedly 60 terrorists have been killed in operation Rah-e-Nijat," the military said in a statement.

"Casualties of security forces are five soldiers (dead) and 11 are injured."

Ground forces launched the three-pronged push on Saturday, starting a much-anticipated assault in a bid to crush networks blamed for some of the worst attacks that have killed more than 2,250 people over the past two years.

"The resistance is not as stiff as we were expecting, maybe because we are still moving and not yet reached the strongholds of the Taliban like Kotkia, Makin, Ladha and Kanigurram," one military official told AFP.

About 20,000 to 25,000 troops headed into action after Pakistan vowed to act after attacks left more than 170 people dead in less than two weeks and embarrassed a nuclear-armed state on the frontline of the US-led war on terror.

Jets carried out fresh air strikes on Sunday at Ladha and Makeen in the north, backing up troops who encountered resistance on the ground, a military official told AFP in the northwest on condition of anonymity.

He said five Taliban hideouts were destroyed. Another official said the army captured rebel-held village Spinkair Raghzai, erecting a checkpoint en route to Kotkai, the home town of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.

Numerous offensives against militants in the tribal belt have met with limited success, costing the lives of 2,000 troops and ending generally with peace agreements that critics say simply gave the enemy a chance to re-arm.

"The operation will continue until the objectives are achieved. The army has blocked all entry and exit points of Waziristan," said army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas.

Commanders have outlined an offensive lasting six to eight weeks, with the goal of finishing before the onset of harsh winter snows.

There are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 TTP fighters in South Waziristan and up to 25,000 across Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt, which has a history of fierce independence and a powerful culture of revenge.

Its tribesmen famously resisted the British in the 19th century and its mountain terrain is pockmarked with goat tracks, caves and thick forest.

"War in Waziristan will not be a simple one. Waziristan is like a black hole," Rahimullah Yusufzai, a tribal affairs expert, told AFP.

US officials say Al-Qaeda fled into the tribal areas after US-led operations toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and is now using the area as a base for plotting attacks on the West and the region.

The offensive by Pakistani troops was accompanied by an indefinite curfew slapped on parts of South Waziristan, officials said.

Since August, more than 100,000 civilians have been registered by local authorities after fleeing South Waziristan, normally home to 600,000 people, said a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), Ariane Rummery.

"Over the last five days, 3,065 families (around 21,000 people) registered... before this latest influx there had been about 80,500 people or 11,000 families," she told AFP.

Pakistani officials say the number of displaced could rise to 200,000 people, who are staying mostly with relatives or renting rooms in the neighbouring districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.

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