Pakistan presses drive against militants
Civilians fleeing tribal area tell of firefights, explosions
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- The Pakistani army pushed farther into a mountainous Taliban and al-Qaeda haven Sunday, as civilians continued to flow out of an area that has become a full-fledged battleground.
On the second day of a ground offensive in the restive border region of South Waziristan, the military said at least 60 militants and five soldiers had been killed. The Pakistani Taliban, which the government says has plotted a cascade of recent attacks on security forces from its base in the area, told the Associated Press that its fighters had inflicted "heavy casualties" against the army.
The fight in South Waziristan is a key test for Pakistan's military, which is tasked with shattering a rising Islamist insurgency that has killed nearly 200 people in bombings and gunfights in the past two weeks. American officials, who have urged Pakistan to get tougher on militants operating on its soil, say the region is also a hub for militants who plan attacks on U.S.-led forces across the border in Afghanistan.
There was no way to independently verify the army or Taliban statements. The military, which has deployed about 30,000 troops to the region, has blocked entry points into the war zone. But residents who left the area this weekend said they had heard explosions and shootouts and seen masked, heavily armed militants swarming outside towns.
Zar Wali, 29, said the sound of bombs and gunfire prompted him and 13 relatives to leave the South Waziristan town of Makeen on Sunday morning. They traversed rugged paths by foot and wagon, he said, to reach the safer town of Bannu, about 50 miles away. Along the way, they came across a truck that had been caught in crossfire, he said. Bullets had struck three women inside.
"It is very bad for the civilians," Wali said in a phone interview.
Local officials say tens of thousands of people have fled South Waziristan -- most in a steady trickle over the past few months and several thousand more in recent days. The military had been carrying out aerial strikes against militant hideouts for months as it prepared for the ground operation.
In a statement, the military said civilians were not being targeted. Some people who waved white flags were released after being searched, the statement said.
Pakistani soldiers surged into the region Saturday from three sides, and military officials said they were targeting the vast holdings of the Mehsud tribe, whose members make up much of the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban. Among the towns that the Pakistani military has captured is Kotkai, the home town of Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, according to Shahab Ali Shah, South Waziristan's top civilian administrator.
The military says its forces are fighting as many as 12,000 militants in a battle it expects to last two months.
Khan is a special correspondent.