Islamabad: Overcoming stiff resistance from militants, Pakistan Army on Saturday captured the key hometown of Taliban chief in the country`s lawless South Waziristan as missiles fired by a US drone in adjacent Bajaur region killed 25 terrorists, but missed by minutes a top commander.
Soldiers entered the Kotkai town late last night under a barrage of bombardment by fighters, attack helicopters and heavy artillery guns to break dogged Taliban defence, which had held them back for four days.
"Kotkai has been captured and all roads leading to the town are under forces` control now," Chief Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told reporters.
Kotkai is the hometown of Hakimullah Mehsud and his close aide Qari Hussain, also known as trainer of suicide bombers, and its capture opens the way for troops to assault the Taliban main hubs of Saragoha and Jandola.
"Soldiers are now clearing Kotkai of landmines, booby traps and roadside bombs," Abbas said, claiming that the fall of the town had led to fissures in Taliban ranks and some of the militants were running away from the area.
In the intense tussle for Kotkai, 21 militants and three soldiers were killed, raising Taliban death toll during Operation Rah-e-Nijat to 171. Pakistan`s 22 Army personnel have so far been killed in the eight day old campaign.
As the Army operation entered a crucial phase, US drones, after a brief lull, today struck a Taliban hideout in Chuhacra village in Bajaur, killing 25 militants including kin of top Taliban commander Maulvi Faqir Mohamad. The son-in-law and nephew of Faqir Mohammad and at least three foreign fighters were among the dead. However, the Taliban chieftain escaped by a whisker, having left the hideout 10 minutes before the hellfire missiles crashed in.
Most of the dead in the drone attack were Afghan militants and toll could rise as some of the injured are in a critical condition, reports said.
Local officials were quoted by TV channels that hideout had tunnels dug under it and the target of the drone apparently was Faqir Mohammad, who was deputy to the slain Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud and had declared himself outfit`s chief after Baitullah`s killing.
The drone attack came after a relative lull in such strikes in the tribal belt over the past few weeks. Reports have said the US decided to cut down on drone attacks due to the operation launched by the Pakistan Army against the Taliban in South Waziristan.
Claiming that the Waziristan offensive was progressing well, Pakistan`s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the campaign would be taken to its logical conclusion.
"Failure is not an option despite the ferocity of these attacks," a statement released by Gilani`s office quoted him as saying.
Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has said the offensive was moving ahead successfully and the aim of the army was to keep the civilian causalities down.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister has issued a quit 72-hour notice to all illegal Afghan nationals living in Islamabad and has also ordered house-to-house search for them. Troops destroyed the homes of Hakimullah and Qari Hussain after moving into parts of Kotkai.
Twelve militants and three soldiers were killed and eight soldiers injured in fighting around Kotkai in the past 24 hours. Six militants were killed near Sherwangi, where troops have been facing stiff resistance from the Taliban.
Another three militants were killed when troops destroyed an ammunition-laden vehicle, the military said. "The town has a training camp of Qari Hussain for suicide bombers," Abbas said.
Abbas claimed local sources had confirmed that about 90 militants, including Uzbek and foreign fighters, were killed and 150 more injured during the initial stages of the operation on October 17 and 18.
"They (Taliban) are also shaving their beards and cutting their hair to escape from the area," he said. The Army has mobilised two divisions or about 28,000 soldiers against an estimated 10,000 Taliban militants and foreign fighters in South Waziristan.
The Pakistan Army has not sought "aid or support from outside" for the operation as its resources are adequate, Abbas said.
"We are going to go for a fight to the finish. With the passage of time, you will see that our forces have the ability, capability and resources to finish the job," he said.