KHAR, Pakistan – Pakistan's army said Saturday that it has captured a key militant stronghold near the Afghan border, a breakthrough in an offensive against the Taliban and Al Qaeda that has sent nearly 200,000 civilians fleeing for safety.
Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan said government forces captured Loi Sam, a strategic town in the Bajur tribal region, earlier this week "and killed the militants who were hiding there."
Bajur is part of Pakistan's tribal belt that has become the redoubt of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters waging an intensifying insurgency on both sides of the frontier.
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.
Commanders had reported stiff resistance near Loi Sam, which sits on a strategic road, from local Taliban militants reinforced by foreign fighters including some from Afghanistan.
Khan said troops had by Saturday overrun the area and were in "complete control" of the town. Eleven tribal militias had joined the government side in the region, he said.
Still, he forecast that it could take between six months and a year before authorities could gain complete control of Bajur.
The general was speaking to reporters escorted to Bajur by the military. Insecurity 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.
The army has acknowledged that residential areas have been badly damaged from fighting and its use of artillery and airstrikes, but it has provided no figure for civilian casualties.