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'Taliban driven out of key battleground'

world Updated: Dec 13, 2009 01:05 IST

Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said on Saturday that the army had driven the Taliban out of South Waziristan, a key battleground in the nation’s fight against the Islamist insurgency.

Armed forces this year launched multiple operations across the northwest tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, the stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban and a haven for Al Qaeda fighters and other militants.

“The operation has finished in South Waziristan, now there is a discussion of taking it to Orakzai agency,” Gilani told reporters in eastern city of Lahore. “We are indeed alive in the most testing times. The retrogressive forces are adamant to stall the process of development,” Gilani said at an annual assembly for students of Government College University.

“Our government is committed to block their path and preserve a culture of peace and harmony in the country,” Gilani said, referring to extremists.

Military officials were not immediately available for reaction to Gilani’s comments.

About 30,000 troops poured into the South Waziristan in October to clear the tribal district of Taliban strongholds, prompting a surge in bomb blasts and attacks in retaliation.

A wave of blasts have killed 72 people since Monday, with the deadliest hitting eastern Lahore, where 51 people were killed in a dual suicide bombing at a market in Pakistan’s second most populous city.

Many militants are believed to have fled to Orakzai district in the centre of the tribal belt, where troops killed nine militants and destroyed their two hideouts in airstrikes on Friday.

Meanwhile a military statement said that helicopter gunships and troops killed 17 militants in central Kurram, one of the seven northwestern tribal districts of Pakistan.

It is not possible to independently verify the death tolls as the areas are out of bounds to journalists and aid workers.

The UN said Friday more than 40,000 civilians had fled the military operation in Orakzai and were in need of humanitarian assistance.

The army claims to have cleared the Swat valley of the militant threat in a spring offensive, although sporadic militant attacks and clashes continue, while they say they are making good progress in South Waziristan.

Pakistan is in the grip of a fierce insurgency by Islamist extremists, with more than 2,680 people killed in attacks since July 2007.