Pakistan army takes Taliban chief's hometown
A suicide bomber killed a police officer on a highway south of the capital Sunday, a day after the army captured the hometown of the Pakistani Taliban chief in its push into a major insurgent stronghold along the Afghan border, AP reported.
Taliban militants have carried out a string of attacks across the country in response to the air and ground offensive in the South Waziristan tribal region, a key test of nuclear-armed Pakistan's campaign against Islamist militancy. Washington has encouraged the operation in the northwest because many militants there are believed to shelter al-Qaida leaders and be involved in attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.
The army announced Saturday the capture of Kotkai town - hometown of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and one of his top deputies, Qari Hussain. It also lies along the way to the major militant base of Sararogha.
The fight was intense, taking several days and involving aerial bombardment, officials said.
The majority of homes in the town were converted into "strong bunkers," and it was home to a training camp for suicide bombers, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters. Troops had begun ridding it of land mines and roadside bombs.
"Thank God, this is the army's very big success," Abbas said. "The good news is that (communications) intercepts show that there are differences forging among the Taliban ranks. Their aides are deserting them."
Abbas said some of the fleeing Taliban have shaved their beards and cut their hair to try to blend in with the civilian population.
Taliban spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
Three soldiers and 21 militants died in the most recent fighting in the region, the army said. Because it has blocked access to South Waziristan, independently verifying such reports is all but impossible.
The government has forged ahead in South Waziristan despite a wave of violence that has put the nation on edge. Some 200 people have been killed in militant attacks across the country this month.
In the latest attack, a suicide bomber blew up a car packed with explosives on the highway near Jhelum city, some 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Islamabad, police official Waseem Kausar said.
He said the car was stopped by police, and one man fled and was caught while the other detonated the bomb, killing a patrol officer. The man now in custody told police they had planned to detonate the bomb in Lahore, Kausar said, without giving details of a specific target.
The eastern city of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city, has been a scene of commando-style attacks by the Taliban in recent months, including on law enforcement agencies.
The U.N. says some 155,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan. In Dera Ismail Khan, a nearby town where many of those fleeing have congregated, the refugees reacted to the news of Kotkai's capture with suspicion.
"They are making tall claims of conquering Waziristan in a few weeks, but we think this is not doable even in five to six years," said Azam Khan Mehsud, who hails from the Makeen area.
The army has deployed some 30,000 troops to South Waziristan to take on an estimated 12,000 militants, including up to 1,500 foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks and Arabs.