Fierce battles rage in Pakistan

2009-10-18 23:09

Dera Ismail Khan - Pakistani troops and the Taliban fought fierce battles on Sunday in a militant sanctuary near the Afghan border, with both sides claiming early victories in an army campaign that could shape the future of the country's battle against extremism.

The Taliban vowed that the Islamist militants would fight to "our last drop of blood" to defend their stronghold of South Waziristan, predicting the army would fail in its latest attempt to gain control over it.

The army said 60 militants and six soldiers had been killed since the offensive began on Saturday in the mountainous, remote region that the army has tried and failed to wrest from near-total insurgent control three times since 2004.

Heavy casualties

The Taliban claimed to have inflicted "heavy casualties" and pushed advancing soldiers back into their bases. It was not possible to independently verify the claims because the army is blocking access to the battlefield and surrounding towns.

Victory for the government in South Waziristan's tribal badlands would eliminate a safe haven for the Taliban militants blamed for surging terrorist attacks and the al-Qaeda operatives they shelter there. It would also send a signal to other insurgent groups in the nuclear armed country of the military's will and ability to fight them.

Defeat would give the militants a propaganda victory, add to pressures on the country's shaky civilian government and alarm Pakistan's Western allies, which want to see it successfully crack down on militancy that is both fuelling and feeding off the insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan.

"We know how to fight this war and defeat the enemy with the minimum loss of our men," the Taliban said  "This is a war imposed on us, and we will defend our land until our last man and our last drop of blood. This is a war bound to end in the defeat of the Pakistan army."

Unlikely to stand and fight

Despite his comments, the estimated 10 000 Pakistani militants and about 1 500 foreign fighters are seen as unlikely to stand and fight. Instead, they will likely do as they have done in other parts of the north west: Avoid conventional battles and launch guerrilla attacks on stationary troops or long supply lines.

Accounts from residents and those fleeing the area on Sunday suggested that the approximately 30 000 government troops pushing into the region from three directions were facing much tougher resistance than they saw in the Swat Valley, another north western region where the army defeated the insurgents earlier this year.

"Militants are offering very tough resistance to any movement of troops," Ehsan Mahsud, a resident of Makeen, a town in the region, said in the town of Mir Ali, close to the battle zone. He and a friend arrived there early on Sunday after travelling through the night.

Mahsud said the army appeared to be mostly relying on air- and artillery strikes against militants occupying high ground. He said the insurgents were firing heavy machine guns at helicopter gunships, forcing the air force to use higher flying jets.

The militants control roughly 3 310 square km of territory, or about half of South Waziristan, in areas loyal to former militant chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US missile strike in August. His clansman Hakimullah Mehsud now leads the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban Movement, an umbrella organisation of several Islamist militant factions seeking to overthrow the secular government.

Officials have said they envisage the operation will last two months, until winter weather will make fighting difficult.

A brief army statement said 60 militants had been killed, along with six soldiers, since Saturday. It said the military had secured high ground close to Razmak, where the army has had a base for several years, and destroyed six militant anti-aircraft gun positions among other gains.

A resident in Wana, a town in South Waziristan and in the heart of Taliban held territory, said the insurgents had left the town and were stationed on the borders of the region, determined to block any army advance.

The army will face difficulty

"All the Taliban who used to be around here have gone to take their position to protect the Mehsud boundary," a local resident said on Sunday. "The army will face difficulty to get in there."

As many as 150 000 civilians, possibly more, have left in recent months after the army made clear it was planning an assault, but as many as 350 000 could still be in the region. The United Nations has been stockpiling relief supplies in a town near the battle zone.

A senior government official said the government was not expecting to establish camps for those fleeing the fighting because most would be living in second homes, with relatives or in rented accommodation in towns outside the tribal region.

Over the last three months, the Pakistani air force has been bombing targets in South Waziristan, while the army has said it has sealed off many Taliban supply and escape routes. The military has been trying to secure the support of local tribal armies in the fight.

Once it became clear two weeks ago that a military offensive was imminent, the Taliban unleashed a torrent of attacks around the country, including a 22 hour siege of army headquarters last weekend.

The Taliban said the insurgents were also behind the two latest attacks: three commando style raids on law enforcement agencies in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday that killed around 30 people, as well as the deadly bombing of a police station in the north western city of Peshawar a day later.

Read more on:    pakistan  |  al-qaeda  |  taliban

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