Pak captures Taliban stronghold

PESHAWAR: Pakistan's army fought more intense clashes Sunday with the Taliban as it followed up the capture of their leader's hometown by claiming control of one of the Islamists' mountain strongholds.

On the ninth day of an offensive in the South Waziristan tribal area designed to deal a knockout blow to the Taliban, the military said it had killed 15 more rebel fighters while one soldier had also died in the fighting.

The heaviest exchanges centred around Tarkona Narai, a mountain which overlooks a key junction in the semi-autonomous territory and which the army said contained a series of Taliban bunkers.

"Today after intense engagements security forces secured the significant mountain top of Tarkona Narai after an effort lasting 16 hours," the military said in a statement.

The army said that it had also secured more strategically-important territory close to the town of Kotkai, the hometown of Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud which was finally overrun in the early hours of Saturday.

Troops clashed with militants during their advance from Kotkai towards Shesham Wam and Baddar areas in the rugged tribal terrain on the Afghan border, other military officials said.

Jets and attack helicopters were providing support to the ground forces, they added.

Pakistan launched a three pronged offensive in South Waziristan region near the Afghan border on October 17 and the army says 178 militants and around two dozen troops have been killed since then.

The casualty figures are impossible to verify independently with the area closed and communication lines down.

Some 120,000 people have already fled the army offensive in the South Waziristan.

Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas on Saturday 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.

In its drive 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.

The rebels have continued to carry out attacks in Pakistani cities since the start of the operation, with the military a major target. Nearly 200 people have been killed in attacks this month alone.

Separately the military said six soldiers were killed when a Pakistani military helicopter crashed in Bajaur, another tribal area bordering Afghanistan late Saturday.

The MI-17 helicopter crash landed at Nawapass due to a technical fault, it said.

"Six soldiers embraced martyrdom. The pilots of the helicopter were injured but are safe and out of danger."

The crash came as a missile strike by an unmanned US drone aircraft killed at least 14 people included three foreign militants, local officials said.

The house of a relative of local Tehreek-e-Taliban chief Maulvi Faqir Mohammad was targeted, they said.

Pakistani security forces launched a huge operation against Islamist militants in Bajaur last August. In February, they claimed the area had been cleared, but unrest has continued.

Hundreds of extremists are believed to have fled Afghanistan into Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas after the US-led invasion toppled the hardline Taliban regime in Kabul in late 2001.