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Pakistan steps up border offensive

world Updated: Oct 19, 2009 14:53 IST
AP
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Troops fought militants on three fronts and fighter jets bombed insurgent positions on Monday as Pakistan pressed ahead with its assault on an al-Qaida and Taliban sanctuary close to the Afghan border.

The army and the Taliban have each claimed early victories in South Waziristan, a mountainous tribal region that Islamist extremists use as a base to plot attacks on the Pakistani state, Western troops in Afghanistan and targets in the West. The fighting took place as US Central Command chief David Petraeus met Pakistan's prime minister and army chief in the capital.

US Senator John Kerry also met political and military leaders to try and ease tensions over an American aid bill that has caused a rift between the army and Pakistan's civilian government. Intelligence officials said fighting was going in three places in South Waziristan close to Jandola, Razmak and Wana, three towns where the army had bases.

Jets were making bombing runs in the Ladha and Makeen areas, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to brief the media on the record. The army said Sunday that 60 militants and six soldiers have been killed since the offensive began Saturday.

Intelligence officials said eight more militants were killed Monday as they advanced on troops in the Khaisur area. It is nearly impossible to independently verify what is going on in South Waziristan because the army is blocking access to it and surrounding towns.

The Taliban claimed Sunday to have inflicted "heavy casualties" and pushed advancing soldiers back into their bases. The military offensive is focused on eliminating Pakistani Taliban militants linked to the Mehsud tribe, who control roughly 1,275 square miles (3,310 square kilometers) of territory, or about half of South Waziristan.

They are blamed for 80 percent of the suicide attacks that have battered Pakistan over the last three years, including five major attacks over the last two weeks. Part of the strategy involves striking deals with other militant groups and tribes in the region to ensure they support the fight, or at least stay neutral.

Some 30,000 troops are up against an estimated 10,000 Pakistani militants and about 1,500 foreign fighters.

As many as 150,000 civilians, possibly more, have left in recent months after the army made clear it was planning an assault, but some 350,000 people may be left in the region. Authorities say that up to 200,000 people may flee in the coming days, but don't expect to have to house them in camps because most have relatives in the region.

"The situation in Waziristan is getting worse and worse every day," said Haji Sherzad Mehsud as he lined up for aid. Accounts from residents and those fleeing Sunday suggested militant resistance was far tougher than in the Swat Valley, another northwest region where insurgents were overpowered earlier this year. Officials have said they envisage the operation will last two months, when winter weather will make fighting difficult. The US has rushed to send equipment, such as night-vision goggles, to aid the offensive.

No details were released about meetings attended by Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Kerry, the US senator.

Kerry is the co-sponsor of a bill signed by President Barack Obama last week that gives $1.5 billion annually over five years for economic and social programs. The government supports the bill, but the army has complained that some of the aid comes with strings attached that amount to American meddling in security affairs.

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