Pakistani army recaptures Taliban stronghold of Kotkai
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- The Pakistani army announced that it had recaptured the home town of the country's Taliban chief Saturday, as its soldiers dug deeper into the Islamist insurgent refuge of South Waziristan.
But the battle for control of Kotkai, the native village of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and another militant known for training suicide bombers, underscored the difficulty of the army's mission. Insurgents pushed back Pakistani troops who first took the town early on in the week-old mission, and the recapture Saturday followed hours of what the army described as "intense" pre-dawn clashes.
The military launched the ground offensive in South Waziristan after months of planning and weeks of near-daily insurgent attacks across the country. The semiautonomous tribal area is home to the Pakistani Taliban network headed by Mehsud, who officials say planned most of the recent attacks. Victory there could help the government reclaim other areas of the restive northwestern border region, which has become a haven for insurgents who attack inside Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan.
Elsewhere in the region Saturday, a suspected U.S. drone strike killed at least 16 insurgents, including the son-in-law and nephew of the area's top Pakistani Taliban commander, said an official in the local administrative office and two intelligence officials.
Abdul Malik, the local official, said residents claimed that 25 insurgents had been killed by the missile strike in the Bajaur region, but he added that the figure could not be confirmed because of limited access to the insurgent-controlled area. One of the intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the missile struck people attending a Taliban meeting being held in a cave. The other intelligence official said the apparent target, Bajaur Taliban chief Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, left the meeting shortly before the strike.
The United States has conducted several drone strikes in the tribal belt with the tacit compliance of Pakistan's government, but civilian casualties have fueled public criticism. Though the Saturday strike apparently did not kill civilians, one local politician said it could hinder Pakistani efforts to fight insurgents. The army launched an anti-Taliban operation in Bajaur in summer 2008 and has said that with the help of local militias, it has regained control of most of the regions.
"After a long time, the people of Bajaur and the Pakistan army joined hands to eliminate the militants, and most of the area has been cleared," said Syed Akhunzada Chitan, a member of Parliament who represents Bajaur. But, he added, referring to drone strikes, "attacks can create unrest in the local population."
In South Waziristan, where at least 28,000 troops are advancing on three fronts, the military said Saturday that 21 Taliban fighters and three soldiers had been killed in the previous 24 hours.
A military statement said soldiers were clearing Kotkai -- a town it said had become a warren of "strong bunkers" built by militants -- of roadside bombs, mines and booby traps. In an interview, a local government official said soldiers had raised a Pakistani flag over Mehsud's destroyed home and set up a checkpoint at the town's entrance to keep insurgents from returning.
Troops were also engaged in a stiff fight to capture Tarkona Narai, a strategic hilltop crossroads elsewhere in South Waziristan, the military said. According to the army statement, insurgent groups are being weakened by "large-scale desertions," and some Taliban fighters are shaving or trimming their long beards to ease their escape from the region.
Khan is a special correspondent.