Pak captures Taliban chief's hometown

PESHAWAR: Pakistan said Saturday it had captured Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud's hometown as the US demonstrated its support for the war on the Islamists with an air strike that killed 14 people.

Security officials said the army overran Mehsud's town of Kotkai overnight after three days of aerial bombardments which had underlined the huge challenge facing the military in taking on the Taliban in their tribal heartland.

And in another part of the northwest tribal belt, a missile fired by an unmanned US drone spy plane killed at least 14 people including three foreign militants, local officials said.

With the militants continuing to carry out attacks nationwide since the army began a major offensive in the South Waziristan tribal region a week ago, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the unrest had hit every sector of society.

Although figures are impossible to verify, the army says more than 160 militants and 23 troops have been killed in the week-long South Waziristan offensive. Twelve militants and three soldiers died in the final stages of the battle for Kotkai, it added.

"Today, after intense fighting, security forces took complete control of the town of Kotkai," the army's chief spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a press conference.

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," the spokesman added.

Abbas said the Taliban had been hit by a large number of desertions, saying that former Islamist fighters were now trimming their beards to distance themselves from their erstwhile comrades in arms.

The army launched the drive last Saturday, pitting 30,000 troops against an estimated 10,000-12,000 Taliban fighters where Al-Qaeda-linked militants are believed to have plotted attacks against the West as well as in Pakistan.

The army had promised to make the Taliban leadership a particular target of their offensive and sealed off the main road into Kotkai last weekend.

There has been no word on the whereabouts of Mehsud since the operation began.

Pakistan's semi-autonomous 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.

While US ground troops are not free to operate in Pakistan, it has carried out a series of air strikes by unmanned planes known as drones.

The latest killed at least 14 people in the Bajaur district, to the north of Waziristan, and officials said the toll was likely to rise.

One security official said that a house was targeted in Damadola village, saying those killed included three foreign militants.

Another security official said a tunnel linked to a bunker in the house of a relative of local Tehreek-e-Taliban chief Maulvi Faqir Mohammad was targeted.

Some of his relatives were among the dead and there were reports Mohammad himself had been in the house but left 10 minutes before the strike, he added.

Announcing plans for both himself and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit soon, Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the region, said the US is "very impressed with the Pakistani resolve".

Although the government has said it will deal a decisive blow to the militants, the rebels have continued to carry out attacks in Pakistani cities since the start of the operation, with the military a major target.

On Friday, a bomb attack outside a Pakistani Air Force base killed six civilians and two air force personnel. On Thursday in Islamabad gunmen killed a brigadier and his driver.

Nearly 200 people have been killed in attacks this month alone.

"The wave of militancy has adversely affected every segment of society," Gilani told a meeting of his top security officials late Friday.