Alexa

Pakistani troops capture militant stronghold

Pakistani troops capture militant stronghold

Pakistan's army said Saturday it has captured a key militant stronghold near the Afghan border, a breakthrough in an offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaida. It acknowledged for the first time that 95 civilians had died during the offensive.
The military said its forces captured Loi Sam in the Bajur tribal region on Friday after a long and bloody struggle. The town sits on a vital intersection of roads leading to the border as well as to three neighboring Pakistan regions.
"Now we have complete control in this area from where miscreants used to go to Afghanistan, Mohmand, Dir and Swat," army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters brought to the intersection on Saturday. "Miscreants have been expelled or killed."
Bajur is part of Pakistan's tribal belt that has become the stronghold of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters waging an intensifying insurgency on both sides of the border.
Pakistan's army launched an offensive in Bajur in early August, saying the region had become a "mega-sanctuary" for militants who had set up a virtual mini-state.
U.S. officials worried about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan have praised the operation and said that it had helped reduce violence on the Afghan side of the border.
However, there has been no halt to the regular American missile strikes on suspected militants hide-outs in other parts of Pakistan's wild border region, despite Islamabad's protests that an ally is violating its sovereignty.
Commanders had reported stiff resistance near Loi Sam from local Taliban militants reinforced by foreign fighters, including some from Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, who commands the paramilitary border force involved in the fighting, said it could take authorities six months to a year to gain complete control of Bajur.
The region has been seen as a possible hiding place for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, but Khan said the troops had not picked up their trail.
The generals spoke to reporters flown into Bajur on a military helicopter. Poor security and government restrictions have made it virtually impossible to verify accounts of the fighting.
Khan said a total of 1,500 suspected militants and 73 troops have died in the operation so far. He also said that 95 civilians had died _ the first official estimate of the toll on noncombatants.
He didn't say whether they were killed by militants or troops, though officials have acknowledged that artillery and airstrikes have devastated many residential areas.
Nearly 200,000 people have fled the fighting, many of them to rough camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The military launched the Bajur operation when militants attacked troops trying to set up a checkpoint in Loi Sam on Aug. 8. Commanders said the troops had to retreat because their reinforcements were ambushed.
Reporters driven from Khar, the region's main town, to Loi Sam on Saturday got a close-up view of the damage inflicted as the troops, backed by artillery and warplanes, fought their way back.
In one village, devastated residential compounds, some of them connected by militant tunnels, lined both sides of the road. Bloodstained pillows and twisted aluminum cooking pots lay in one pile of rubble.
In Loi Sam itself, hardly a building had escaped. Houses, shops and gas stations were badly damaged or destroyed. There was no one to talk to except the troops, some of whom stood around a line of tanks on a dusty street.
As reporters watched, several fired shells at what officers said was a militant hide-out.
Khan said militants were still entering the region from Afghanistan, but that the flow had eased thanks to coordinated efforts with foreign troops on the other side.
U.S.-led troops had "checked" a group trying to cross into Pakistan on Friday night, Khan said. He gave no details.
Abbas said troops from the paramilitary Frontier Corps would eventually replace regular army troops in the captured areas. U.S. special operations forces began instructing personnel from the corps in counterinsurgency techniques in the past week.
Khan also said that a total of 11 tribal militias, known as lashkars, have joined the government side in Bajur. The militias have been compared to so-called awakening councils who have combated al-Qaida in Iraq.
However, Khan denied media reports that the government was arming the tribesmen and said the militias would be disbanded once their areas are cleared of militants.


Updated : 2021-04-17 11:09 GMT+08:00