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Pakistan pushes ahead with anti-Taliban assault


Islamabad : Pakistani security forces scored their first gains in a crucial offensive against Taliban near the Afghan border, by taking two militant towns amid casualties on both sides, officials said Sunday.

Troops began a three-pronged advance on the Taliban redoubt in South Waziristan before daybreak Saturday, shortly after the nation’s political and military leadership decided the much-awaited assault was “imperative” to establish the state’s writ.

The ground phase of the operation, codenamed Path to Deliverance, follows a wave of terrorist attacks across Pakistan over the last two weeks, which killed more than 160 people.

Jet aircraft and artillery bombed militant positions for weeks to soften up the Taliban defences, but soldiers were still encountering stiff resistance.

After fierce fighting on the first day, the military overran the Spinkai Raghzai and Shakai areas, an intelligence official in the region said on condition of anonymity.

At least 25 insurgents and five soldiers were killed in the overnight clashes and aerial bombing runs, according to the official. Several Taliban hideouts were also destroyed.

“Around a dozen militants and one soldier died as fighting erupted in the Sarwaki area on Sunday,” the official said, adding that heavy combat was continuing.

Independent verification of the casualty figures is difficult as all telecommunication traffic from the region has been blocked and many journalists have left the war zone.

Government forces sealed off roads and imposed curfew in selected towns for safe movement of military convoys.

More than 28,000 soldiers backed by jets, helicopter gunships and artillery are taking on up to 10,000 Taliban militants, including an estimated 1,500 hardcore Al Qaeda fighters of Arab and Central Asian origin.

Guerrilla tactics and the rugged terrain will test Pakistan’s capability to fight an unconventional war in extreme winter weather.

A security official said militants had planted mines and homemade bombs along roads and laid nails on tracks to impede the military’s advance. Explosives were also said to be rigged to bridges.

Military strategists believe the operation could span up to eight weeks.

The UN said nearly 80,000 people had fled the conflict zone since May, while Pakistani officials fear the number of refugees might exceed 120,000.

The offensive is not the first time the Pakistani army is taking on the Taliban in South Waziristan, but earlier assaults largely failed to achieve their goals, with authorities grappling to reach peace deals to end the harsh fighting.

The US has been pressing Pakistan to dismantle the Taliban network in Waziristan, a known Al Qaeda sanctuary that is used to plan and launch deadly strikes on the Western forces in Afghanistan.