PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani aircraft attacked Taliban in the South Waziristan region on Sunday a day after the army said it had captured a strategic town on an approach to main militant base area.
The army assault in the ethnic Pashtun tribal region on the border with Afghanistan is seen as a test of the government’s determination to tackle Islamists responsible for a string of attacks against government and other targets.
The campaign is being closely followed by the United States and other powers embroiled in Afghanistan’s growing conflict who want Pakistan to eliminate militant sanctuaries in its lawless northwest.
The latest bombardment in the week-old offensive was against militant bases in the three villages of Sam, Badr and Ladha, government and security officials said.
“It was intense bombing and later helicopter gunships attacked,” said an intelligence agency official who declined to be identified.
Several militant hideouts had been destroyed in the bombing, said a government official, adding he had no information about casualties.
Military spokesman were not available for comment.
South Waziristan, a rugged land of rocky mountains and patchy forest, is a global hub of Islamist militancy. Foreign fighters including Uzbeks and Arab al Qaeda supporters are fighting alongside the Taliban.
Soldiers are advancing on the militants’ main stronghold area from three directions.
Forces moving in from the southeast had taken control of Kotkai town, the birthplace of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and the home town of Qari Hussain Mehsud, a senior commander known as “the mentor of suicide bombers,” the army said on Saturday.
The small town is a gateway to important militant strongholds and intelligence officials in the region said government forces killed at least 15 militants in a heavy clash late on Saturday as they pushed beyond Kotkai.
About 150,000 people have fled their homes in South Waziristan but aid officials do not expect the exodus to become a humanitarian crisis, as did a similar offensive in the Swat valley this year.
While the army battles Taliban fighters in their strongholds, the militants have been attacking police and other targets in towns and cities.
In the latest attack, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives when police stopped his car at a motorway exit about 145 km (100 miles) east of the capital, Islamabad, for a search late on Saturday, a senior police officer said.
“Two people were traveling in the car. One man got out and walked away a few yards. When police approached to search the other man behind the wheel blew himself up,” said police officer Mohammad Ali Babkhel.
Police arrested the other man, Babkhel said.
The country is on high alert and security worries have been hurting trade on Pakistan’s stock market.
The main index ended flat at 9,150.85 points on Friday after losing 7 percent over the week.