ISLAMABAD – Pakistani soldiers captured the hometown of the country's Taliban chief Saturday, a strategic and symbolic initial prize as the army pushes deeper into a militant stronghold along the Afghan border. An army spokesman said the Taliban were in disarray, with many deserting the ranks.
The 8-day-old air and ground offensive in the South Waziristan tribal region is a key test of nuclear-armed Pakistan's campaign against Islamist militancy. It has already spurred a civilian exodus and deadly retaliatory attacks.
Washington has encouraged the operation in the northwest because many militants there are believed to shelter Al Qaeda leaders and are also suspected to be involved in attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has also kept up its own missile strikes in the lawless tribal belt, including a suspected one that killed 22 Saturday.
The battle for Kotkai town was symbolically key because it is the 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, making it a strategically helpful catch.
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 also 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 immediately 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 the data 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 a variety of militant attacks across the country this month.
The U.N. says some 155,000 civilians have fled the region. In Dera Ismail Khan, a gritty town near South Waziristan 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.
Others noted that Pakistan had failed at least three times before to wrest the region from the Taliban and said they feared the damage the army might cause.
"Years ago, the army suddenly started an operation and we all had to leave our area in the clothes we were wearing," said Abdul Samad Khan, 65, a farmer from the Spinkai Raghzai area. "When we returned to our area all our homes were either bombed, bulldozed or torched. Our animals were missing. Now imagine, if they come with more might, what they will do with our area."
The army has deployed some 30,000 troops to South Waziristan to take on some 12,000 Taliban militants, including up to 1,500 foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks and Arabs.
The U.S. has launched scores of missile strikes at militant targets in Pakistan's tribal belt over the past year, killing several top insurgents including former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
The latest strike hit Chuhatra village in the tribal region of Bajur on Saturday, local government official Mohammad Jamil said.
The target appeared to be Faqir Mohammad, a prominent Taliban leader, but he is believed to have escaped the hide-out by minutes, Jamil said. Most of the 22 killed were Afghan nationals, he said.
Pakistan formally protests the missile strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and raise sympathy for the Taliban, while the U.S. rarely discusses the attacks. However, analysts believe the two sides have a secret deal allowing the strikes.
The U.S. has shown no sign of easing the drone-fired attacks even as Pakistan is waging its own fight in the tribal areas. Asked if the missile attacks are a distraction or help, the army spokesman said Pakistan would prefer to go it alone.
"We do not want any assistance or interference from outside," Abbas said.
He added that a mysterious explosion Wednesday in North Waziristan — initially described by intelligence officials as a suspected U.S. missile attack — had turned out to be a blast caused when explosives being loaded onto a vehicle accidentally detonated.
Also Saturday, a military helicopter crashed in the Bajur tribal region, killing three officials, the army said, adding that the crash was an accident, not caused by any militant attacks.