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Pakistan troops kill 20 militants in offensive: officials

world Updated: Oct 20, 2009 12:09 IST

At least 20 militants and four soldiers died in fierce overnight fighting between the Taliban and Pakistan troops pressing a major offensive for a fourth day on Tuesday, officials said.

Pakistan faces its toughest military test against the militants to date in waging its ground assault in South Waziristan, part of the lawless tribal belt where Al-Qaeda and Taliban networks are allegedly plotting attacks on the West.

The latest death toll -- which is impossible to confirm independently with the area sealed off and all communication lines down -- would bring to around 100 the number of suspected Taliban that the authorities say have been killed.

"Fierce fighting continued overnight between security forces and rebels, in which at least 20 militants and four soldiers were killed," a senior military official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Troops backed by artillery, attack helicopters and fighter jets pounded Taliban dens around Kotkai, home town of Qari Hussain, once known as the mentor of suicide bombers and of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.

"The troops have yet to enter Kotkai and it seems that they (militants) want to defend this stronghold at all costs," the official said.

"Our troops fought a pitched battle overnight to gain control of Kotkai," another security official confirmed. Troops have consolidated their positions in Nawazkot and Sherwangi areas.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Pakistan was determined to deliver a "decisive blow" against the Taliban in South Waziristan.

Around 25,000 troops are involved in the three-pronged push against militants blamed for two years of attacks across Pakistan, pitted against 10,000 Tehreek-e-Taliban fighters dug into about half of South Waziristan.

Officials say that around 110,500 people have fled to neighbouring districts Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, on foot and stuffed into pick-up trucks weighed down with bedding and animals, to escape the air strikes and fighting.