DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (Reuters) – Taliban militants attacked Pakistani forces and recaptured a strategic town on Tuesday on the approach to an insurgent base in south Waziristan, security officials said.
Government forces captured the small town of Kotkai, the birthplace of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, in fighting on Monday night, but militants struck back on Tuesday to retake it, security officials said.
The fighting for control of lawless South Waziristan is a major test of the government’s ability to tackle an increasingly brazen insurgency that has seen a string of attacks in various parts of the country.
A bomb blast at the Islamic University in Islamabad on Tuesday killed one person and wounded 13 others, said Dr Wasim Khawija, a spokesman for the main government hospital.
Further details were not immediately available.
Remote and rugged South Waziristan, with its rocky mountains and patchy forests cut through by dry creeks and ravines, is a global hub for militants, and the offensive is being closely followed by the United States and other powers embroiled in Afghanistan.
“Seven soldiers, including a major, and several Taliban were killed in the fighting,” an intelligence official in the region told Reuters.
Another intelligence official said jets bombed Taliban positions in and around Kotkai after the militant counter-attack.
The town, also the home town of Qari Hussain Mehsud, a senior Taliban commander known as “the mentor of suicide bombers,” is a gateway to a militant stronghold at Sararogha.
Military spokesmen were not available for comment.
It is not possible to verify independently reports from the battle zone as foreign reporters are not allowed in and it is dangerous for Pakistani reporters to visit. Many of the Pakistani media based in South Waziristan have left.
The army says 78 militants and nine soldiers have been killed since the long-awaited offensive began on Saturday.
There was no independent verification of the tolls.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was encouraged by the offensive but it was too early to gauge the impact. General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the region, held talks with Pakistani military and government officials on Monday.
Military officials and analysts said forces had faced less resistance than expected, but heavy fighting was likely when soldiers approach militant sanctuaries in the forest-covered mountains.
About 28,000 soldiers are battling an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban, including about 1,000 tough Uzbek fighters and some Arab al Qaeda members.
The militants have had years to prepare their bunkers, but the army says it has surrounded the entire militant zone and was attacking from the north, southwest and southeast.
More than 100,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan in anticipation of the offensive, with about 26,000 of them leaving since October 13, the United Nations said.
Up to 200,000 people could flee, the army says.
The army has launched brief offensives in South Waziristan before, the first in 2004 when it suffered heavy casualties before striking a peace pact.
This time, however, analysts say the army, the government and the general public all agree the time has come to deal with the Pakistani Taliban.
“I’m obviously encouraged by the Pakistani operations. I think that the terrorist attacks that have been launched inside Pakistan in recent days made clear the need to begin the deal with this problem,” Gates said aboard a U.S. military aircraft.
“And so we obviously are very supporting of what the Pakistanis are doing. But it’s very early yet.”
Pakistani stocks fell 4.34 percent on Monday on worries about security, but rebounded on Tuesday, with the index up 2.41 percent at 9,637.65 points at 1500 (0900 GMT).
“Market fundamentals are strong and investors are buying at lower levels on hopes of healthy corporate earnings,” said Asad Iqbal, managing director at Ismail Iqbal Securities Ltd.
“But investors are still a bit nervous as there could be militant attacks.”