Pakistan claims progress in offensive, despite pockets of resistance

Pakistani troops prepare to leave on a patrol in Bannu, a town on the edge of Waziristan. The combat area has been closed to journalists.
Pakistani troops prepare to leave on a patrol in Bannu, a town on the edge of Waziristan. The combat area has been closed to journalists. (Ijaz Muhammad/associated Press)
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 farther into the semiautonomous 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 asserted. Neither account could be independently verified because entrance to the area and many nearby towns is blocked.

Meanwhile, 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.

In Islamabad, Gen. David H. 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 Gillani asked Petraeus and Kerry for U.S. assistance with relief efforts as civilians flee the fighting in South Waziristan, according to a statement from Gillani's office. More than 100,000 people have relocated to districts in neighboring North-West Frontier Province, military officials said, and the United Nations said Monday that it expected the number to rise to 170,000.

Khan is a special correspondent.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company