DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – The leader of the Pakistani Taliban urged his fighters to stand fast against a military offensive in tribal South Waziristan, warning them in an intercepted message obtained Thursday that cowards will go to hell.
Pakistani forces launched an offensive in mid-October to crush the Taliban in the semiautonomous region along the Afghan border that is believed to be the main stronghold of the militants and their Al Qaeda allies.
"Remember this is the commandment of God that once fighting starts with the enemy, you cannot leave the battlefield without permission from your commander, and don't look for excuses to run away from the fighting," Hakimullah Mehsud told his followers in a speech Tuesday broadcast over a wireless radio network. Of those who do run away, he warned, "Such people will go to hell."
Pakistani intelligence officials shared a recording of the speech with The Associated Press.
"We are in jihad and we should not pay heed to the whispers of Satan. We should sacrifice our lives for Islam so that we can feel pride on the day of judgment," Mehsud said.
The military says hundreds of militants have been killed in the offensive — including 28 in just the past day — and that hundreds more have been wounded. The Taliban dismisses such claims and insisted earlier this week it hadn't even lost a dozen fighters.
While refugees fleeing the area have reported heavy fighting, details are impossible to confirm. South Waziristan has been sealed off to outsiders since the offensive began. Journalists have only been allowed in on carefully orchestrated government trips.
Meanwhile, missiles believed fired by U.S. drones killed two alleged militants Thursday in a northwestern tribal region, intelligence officials said, while Pakistani soldiers battled Taliban fighters in a neighboring area along the Afghan border.
The attack indicated the U.S. will not abandon a favorite tactic against Islamist extremists despite Pakistani concerns that the missile strikes anger insurgents who have agreed to stay neutral as the army wages an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan.
The missiles hit a house in Naurak village in the North Waziristan tribal area overnight, killing two alleged militants, the two officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media on the record.
However, local tribesman Inayat Wazir told The Associated Press by telephone that the house was empty and no one had died. It was not immediately possible to verify either claim due to the dangerous nature of the region.
The area struck is believed to be under the control of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a warlord involved in fighting U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan's military has struck a deal with Bahadur — saying they would leave him alone as long as he stayed out of their way in South Waziristan as they fight the Pakistani Taliban, the network the government blames for most of the suicide bombings in the country.
Pakistani military officials could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday, but in the past officials have said the country would prefer there be no outside interference as it takes on the militants.
The truth is difficult to determine. The Americans rarely discuss the missile strikes, and although the Pakistanis publicly condemn them as violations of their sovereignty, many analysts believe the two countries have a secret deal allowing them.
A CIA missile strike killed the Pakistani Taliban's former leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in August just as Pakistan's military was using airstrikes to soften up targets ahead of the ground offensive, and local intelligence officials later confirmed they had aided the U.S. in tracking down the target.
The militants are fighting to rid Pakistan of what they see as anti-Muslim and excessively Western influences.
On Thursday, militants blew up a girls' school in the Khyber tribal region, said local administrator Ghulam Farooq Khan. No one was injured in the early morning explosion, the latest in a long series of attacks against schools, particularly those for girls. The Taliban is deeply opposed to Western-style education.
It was the second destruction of a school in that area this week.