Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan: At least 20 militants and four soldiers died in fierce overnight fighting between the Taliban and Pakistan troops pressing a major offensive for a fourth day Tuesday, officials said.
Pakistan faces its toughest military test against the militants to date in waging its ground assault in South Waziristan, part of the lawless tribal belt where Al-Qaeda and Taliban networks are allegedly plotting attacks on the West.
The latest death toll -- which is impossible to confirm independently with the area sealed off and all communication lines down -- would bring to around 100 the number of suspected Taliban that the authorities say have been killed.
"Fierce fighting continued overnight between security forces and rebels, in which at least 20 militants and four soldiers were killed," a senior military official told on condition of anonymity.
Troops backed by artillery, attack helicopters and fighter jets pounded Taliban dens around Kotkai, home town of Qari Hussain, once known as the mentor of suicide bombers and of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
"The troops have yet to enter Kotkai and it seems that they (militants) want to defend this stronghold at all costs," the official said.
"Our troops fought a pitched battle overnight to gain control of Kotkai," another security official confirmed. Troops have consolidated their positions in Nawazkot and Sherwangi areas.
Pakistan vowed to target Taliban leaders and deal a killer blow to the Islamists as it pressed a major offensive Western military chiefs said was key to regional stability.
But concerns are mounting that the assault in South Waziristan will spark another refugee crisis ahead of heavy snow in a bitterly cold winter.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Pakistan was determined to deliver a "decisive blow" against the Taliban in the tribal district, as troops advanced towards diehard militant bastions along heavily mined roads.
Ground forces have massed on the western, eastern and northwestern flanks of Kotkai, the hometown of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud and key Taliban leader Qari Hussain, readying for an assault.
"The high-level targets are the leadership. We hope to get the leadership," said Major General Athar Abbas, the army`s chief spokesman.
"The forces have taken over the heights, features around Kotkai. Kotkai is the home town of Qari Hussain, formerly known as the mentor of suicide bombers," said Abbas, referring to "stiff resistance" at Sherwangi.
US Secretary of State Robert Gates said on Tuesday he was encouraged by a Pakistani offensive against Taliban militants but that it was too soon to judge the outcome.
"I`m obviously encouraged by the Pakistani operations," Gates told reporters aboard his aircraft en route to Tokyo.
"I think that the terrorist attacks that have been launched inside Pakistan in recent days made clear the need to begin to deal with this problem," he said.
"And so we obviously are very supporting of what the Pakistanis are doing. But it`s very early yet," he said, adding the operation had "only been underway a few days."
The insurgents have mined roads with improvised-explosive devices (IEDs) of the type deployed to devastating effect against NATO and US troops fighting an eight-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the official said.
Hoping to sow division, the military airdropped leaflets urging Mehsud`s own tribe to rise up and fight alongside the army.
"The aim of the army is to provide an opportunity to the Mehsud tribe to live in peace and tranquility," said the flyers.
Gilani urged the international community to provide reconstruction and relief aid at talks with US General David Petraeus and US Senator John Kerry.
Petraeus, overall commander of the US military operation in Afghanistan, said Washington "acknowledges the sacrifices of Pakistan in the war on terror".
The secretary general of NATO, which has around 67,700 troops in Afghanistan, also expressed "appreciation of the increased efforts... in the border regions" by the Pakistan authorities.
"It is crucial for stability in the whole region that the Pakistani government and military succeed in their endeavours," Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
Pakistan says its offensive is concentrated against up to 10,000 fighters spread across about half of South Waziristan.
Some 25,000 troops are involved in the three-pronged push against militant networks blamed for some of the worst attacks in Pakistan, where a recent spike in assaults has left more than 170 people dead so far this month.
Some of the 100,000 people who have fled to neighbouring Dera Ismail Khan, on foot and stuffed into pick-up trucks weighed down with bedding and animals, spoke of intensifying fighting and air strikes targeting villages.
"I decided to leave when my neighbour`s house was destroyed by jet fighters," said Rahim Dad Mehsud, a labourer from Tiarza who said he walked three days to leave South Waziristan with 12 relatives.
Mehsud, who comes from the same tribe as the TTP leader, said ordinary civilians were the victims of a doomed operation.
"The Taliban cannot be eliminated through a military operation. Both are killing us," he said.
Some of the displaced civilians accused the authorities of maltreating those from the tribal belt, which has a fierce tradition of independence.
Numerous previous offensives in the tribal belt have had limited success, costing the lives of 2,000 troops and ending generally with peace agreements that critics say simply gave the militants a chance to re-arm.