After weeklong battle, Pakistani army seizes Taliban stronghold

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistani forces Saturday captured the hometown of the chief of the country's Taliban movement, officials announced, the first big gain in the weeklong ground offensive in South Waziristan.

A U.S.-backed operation was launched Monday in part of the tribal border area with Afghanistan that functions as the epicenter of the Pakistan's extremist groups, as well as a refuge for Afghan insurgents and the al Qaida leadership. Pakistani authorities estimate that 80 percent of terrorist attacks in the country originate from South Waziristan.

By early Saturday, the army secured control of the town of Kotkai, the birthplace of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and also the hometown of the Taliban's master trainer of suicide bombers, Qari Hussain. After the army initially appeared to take the town Monday, the Taliban had staged a strong comeback, keeping the security forces at bay for several days of intense fighting, officials said.

"We have complete control of Kotkai, a stronghold of the terrorists, where most of the houses had been converted into strong bunkers," the military's chief spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, told a news briefing in Islamabad. "This is a very important development tactically."

The Taliban is deserting in large numbers, Abbas said, "trimming their beards and cutting their hair to escape the area." The army is now clearing the town of mines, improvised explosive devices and booby traps, he said.

However, the Pakistani army's latest offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan, probably the country's most significant anti-terror operation since 2001, has failed to convince many residents of the frontier area that the state is finally determined to wipe out the Islamic extremists.

Some residents said told McClatchy this week that the country's army acts intermittently against the Taliban just to keep U.S. aid flowing.

Almost 21,000 civilian families have now fled the conflict zone -- an estimated 153,000 individuals, the government reported Saturday, taking refuge in the adjacent North West Frontier Province. That's more than two thirds of the estimated 30,000 families who live in the part of South Waziristan occupied by the Mehsud tribe, which is the focus of the offensive.

Pakistani forces are converging from three sides on the Taliban "capital" of Makeen. The town of Kotkai lies on the path of the push from the southeast on Makeen, the second and more challenging phase of the operation.

Asad Munir, a retired brigadier general who was formerly the head of military intelligence for the tribal area, said the operation is "going very well."

Separately, at least 12 people were killed by a suspected U.S. missile fired from a drone in Bajaur, another part of the tribal area. According to local media reports, some of which put the death toll as high as 22, a senior Pakistani Taliban commander, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, had left the building struck just 10 minutes earlier. His nephew and son-in-law were among the dead, the reports said.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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