3 soldiers killed in Waziristan offensive

PESHAWAR: Three Pakistani soldiers were killed and several wounded in the past 24 hours as troops pressed a major anti-Taliban offensive in the northwest, officials said today.

Troops advanced further on militant positions a day after overrunning Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud’s hometown of Kotkai, killing “at least 15 militants over the past 24 hours,” a senior military official told AFP.

He put military losses in the militant stronghold of South Waziristan over the same period at three soldiers dead and several wounded. Troops clashed with militants during their advance from Kotkai towards Shesham Wam and Baddar areas in the rugged tribal terrain on the Afghan border, another official said. Jets and attack helicopters were providing support to the ground forces, officials said.

Pakistan launched the major offensive in the semi-autonomous South Waziristan region on October 17 and the army says more than 160 militants and some two dozen troops have been killed since then. The figures are impossible to verify independently since communication lines down. The army said many of the houses in Kotkai had been converted into bunkers by militants and it was also the site of a training camp for suicide bombers.

“Security forces are in the process of clearing the build-up area of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), booby-traps and mines,” military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a news conference on Saturday. The army has pitted 30,000 troops against an estimated 10,000-12,000 Taliban fighters in an area where Al-Qaeda-linked militants are believed to have plotted attacks against the West as well as in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s tribal belt has become a stronghold for hundreds of extremists who fled Afghanistan after the US-led invasion toppled the hardline Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan in late 2001.