ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Pakistani forces are zeroing in on two major Taliban bases in South Waziristan region as their offensive pushes deeper into militant bastion on the Afghan border, the military said on Sunday.
The army launched a major assault in South Waziristan on Sept. 17 to seize control of the lawless land after a string of attacks by militants, including a stunning assault on the army headquarters that killed more than 150 people.
The offensive is a major test for the Pakistani government and the military to stem the rising tide of Islamist militancy and is being closely followed by the United States and other Western nations embroiled in Afghanistan’s growing conflict.
The military says an “important phase” of its three-pronged offensive has begun as troops had reached the outskirts of Sararogha and Makeen, two main bases of the militants in treacherous mountainous terrain. Makeen is described as “the nerve centre” of the militants while Sararogha, about 20 km (13 miles) southeast of Makeen, houses a strategic fort manned by a paramilitary force until it was captured by the Taliban last year after killing several soldiers and taking dozens hostage.
“Security forces have surrounded Makeen from three directions,” the military said in a statement.
Security officials said military jets and helicopter gunships pounded militant positions in and around Makeen during the battle.
The military says government forces have laid siege to Sararogha, captured all the important features and ridges overlooking the town and cleared half of Kaniguram, a hub of Uzbek militants.
Nine militants and two soldiers were killed during Sunday’s fighting, the military said, taking the militants’ death toll to 331 in 16 days of fighting.
Thirty-eight soldiers have been killed, according to army estimates, although there was no independent verification of casualty figures as journalists have been barred from visiting the war zone.
Security officials expect heavy fighting in the coming days. “The command and control structure of the Taliban exists in Sararogha, Makeen and Ladha, a security official said, referring to another Taliban base. “It’s going to be a tough fight for these places.”
The offensive in South Waziristan has triggered a new wave of attacks by the militants across the country. More than 100 people were killed in a car bombing in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Wednesday, the deadliest attack in two years. It came hours after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Islamabad on a three-day visit.
The rough and rugged tribal territory separating Pakistan and Afghanistan is a stronghold for Taliban insurgents from both countries, as well as a haven for al Qaeda operatives.
The United States has hailed Pakistani anti-Taliban operations but Clinton said on Thursday she found it “hard to believe” that no one in authority in Pakistan knew where al Qaeda leaders were hiding out.
Clinton’s pointed remark was the first public gripe on a trip aimed at turning around a U.S.-Pakistan relationship under serious strain, but bound in the struggle against religious extremism.