Islamabad: Pakistani troops pressed on with their offensive against the Taliban in the restive Waziristan tribal belt where 24 militants and two soldiers were killed in fresh clashes, taking to 157 the toll in the intense fighting which entered the sixth day on Thursday.
Since Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) was launched in the lawless tribal region on Saturday, much of the fighting has centred around Sherwangi and Kotkai, the hometowns of Tehrik-e-Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and his deputy Qari Hussain.
The military said 24 militants have been killed since yesterday, including 13 gunned down during intense fighting to secure Tor Ghundai, a strategic location overlooking Kotkai. Eleven militants were killed when troops repulsed an attack near Sherwangi. A soldier also died in the same attack.
Another soldier was killed and one more injured when militants attacked a security forces camp at Razmak in North Waziristan with rockets.
About 139 militants and 18 soldiers have died in six days of fighting.
Despite strict security arrangements put in place across the country, militants showed they are capable of retaliating as they gunned down Brigadier Moin-ud-Din, who was serving with the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan, and a soldier on the outskirts of Islamabad this morning. Another soldier was injured in the attack carried out by motorcycle-borne gunmen.
Military officials have said progress in the offensive in South Waziristan has been slower than expected due to the rugged mountainous terrain and stiff resistance put up by the Taliban.
At many places, troops have had to clear heights on which the militants had mounted heavy anti-aircraft guns.
Militants had "left the area" around Tor Ghundai near Kotkai "after suffering heavy casualties" and troops were securing Shishamwam after clearing bunkers and caves used as hideouts by the Taliban.
Troops also regained control of Torwam bridge, which was closed by militants since 2007. The bridge is a vital link to Ladha, another Taliban stronghold.
Though there were reports that soldiers had taken control of parts of Kotkai, the military did not give any indication of plans to occupy the town. Though Hakimullah Mehsud was not present in Kotkai, its capture would be symbolically important for the military campaign.
The military has used helicopter gunships and jets to bombard Taliban positions, especially in the Ladha and Makeen areas. There are also reports that authorities have struck deals with Taliban factions led by Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur to allow troops to move through their areas without being attacked. This will help the army open up new fronts in the assault.
In return, the Army is expected to ease patrolling and operations in the areas controlled by the two militant commanders.
Maulvi Nazir has considerable influence in parts of South Waziristan, including the main town of Wana.
The Army, which has been targeted in several recent audacious attacks carried out by the Taliban, has said it is determined to take the offensive in South Waziristan to its logical conclusion.
"This is a fight to the finish. There is no option of losing this. It is very important to our people that we must win this fight, we must get rid of this organisation which is responsible for over 80 percent of the acts of terrorism and mayhem in our country," said chief military spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas.