By Karin Brulliard and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Pakistani soldiers surrounded militant hideouts and seized heavy weapons in the Taliban-riddled hills of South Waziristan on Monday, military officials said.
On the third day of a major ground and air offensive to root out Islamist insurgents, officials said, the army faced pockets of stiff resistance that included rocket fire. But they said they were making progress, killing 18 fighters in a tribal region that Pakistan says is home to plotters of a recent series of deadly domestic assaults. The United States considers South Waziristan a haven for militants attacking international forces in Afghanistan and planning attacks overseas.
"The government has a strong resolve to wipe out terrorism from this area," Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told journalists in Islamabad, the capital. "These terrorists are a threat to national and international peace."
Two Pakistani soldiers were killed as forces pushed further into the semi-autonomous border area, bringing the total killed since Saturday to nine, military officials said.
One tribal elder in the area with ties to the Taliban, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said 20 insurgents had been killed during the three-day offensive, not 78, as the military claimed. Neither account could be independently verified because entrance to the area and many nearby towns is blocked.
In Islamabad, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander for the region, and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) held separate meetings with Pakistani military and civilian leaders to discuss the operation. They were also attempting to ease concerns over a U.S. aid package that the Pakistani military has criticized as undue meddling in internal Pakistani affairs..
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani asked Petraeus and Kerry for U.S. assistance with relief efforts as civilians flee the fighting in South Waziristan, according to a statement from Gilani's office. More than 100,000 people have relocated to districts in the neighboring North-West Frontier Province, military officials said, and the United Nations said Monday that it expected the number to rise to 170,000.
The Pakistani army's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, told reporters in the capital that soldiers were penetrating the area from two primary directions and had seized caches of heavy ammunition and anti-aircraft guns. He said forces had also surrounded Kotkai, the home town of the Pakistani Taliban's leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, and an ally named Qari Hussein, whom Abbas referred to as "the mentor of suicide bombers."
"We suspect the leadership is still there," Abbas said of the region, where 30,000 troops are targeting Mehsud and his network of insurgents. "They are directing the foot soldiers in this area."
Abbas dismissed concerns that the ratio of soldiers to militants -- estimated at three to one -- is not high enough to support a prolonged and successful counterinsurgency. He said the army had "sufficient numbers and adequate weaponry" and was buoyed by public calls to go after the Taliban.
"This is not an area that is alien to us," he said. "We are not an occupying force."
Two intelligence officials in the tribal areas, neither of whom is allowed to speak publicly, said security forces had captured several villages and ridges with relative ease. But one of the officials said insurgents in the Taliban stronghold of Makeen were firing rockets at a paramilitary base located on the border with neighboring North Waziristan.
The tribal elder said the army's advances were probably part of a Taliban strategy to lure troops deep into region "and then launch attacks from all sides." Among the insurgent forces, he said, are fierce Uzbek and Chechen fighters who "could inflict heavy losses to the military."
Khan is a special correspondent.