ISLAMABAD – The army claimed to be advancing on a main Pakistani Taliban stronghold along the Afghan border Sunday, a day after capturing the hometown of the militant group's chief and sending insurgents there fleeing into the nearby mountains.
The militants in the rugged, lawless South Waziristan tribal region continued to attack troops with rockets, an army statement said, while in northeastern Pakistan a suicide bomber killed a police officer on a highway south of the capital.
Taliban militants have carried out a string of attacks across the country in response to the air and ground offensive. Washington has encouraged the operation in the northwest because many militants there are believed to shelter Al Qaeda leaders and be involved in attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.
The army announced Saturday the capture of Kotkai, the hometown of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and one of his top deputies, Qari Hussain.
The town lies on the way to the major militant base of Sararogha, and the army statement Sunday said troops had captured two key fronts between Kotkai and the base. The statement said troops secured at least one other important front and fought 16 hours to capture a significant mountaintop.
Terrorists have fled Kotkai and are sporadically attacking troops with rockets from distant heights, the statement said.
The most recent fighting in the region killed 15 militants and one soldier, the statement said. Independent verification of such reports is nearly impossible because the military has blocked access to South Waziristan.
The majority of homes in Kotkai had been converted into "strong bunkers," and it 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 be reached for comment.
Some 200 people have been killed in militant attacks across Pakistan this month.
In the latest attack Sunday, a suicide bomber blew up a car packed with explosives on the highway near Jhelum city, some 60 miles south of Islamabad, police official Waseem Kausar said.
He said the car was stopped by police, and one man fled and was caught while the other detonated the bomb, killing a patrol officer. The man now in custody told police they had planned to detonate the bomb in Lahore, Kausar said, without giving details of a specific target.
The eastern city of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city, has been a scene of commando-style attacks by the Taliban in recent months, including on law enforcement agencies.
The U.N. says some 155,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan. In Dera Ismail Khan, a nearby town where many of those fleeing have congregated, they 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.
The army has deployed some 30,000 troops to South Waziristan to take on an estimated 12,000 militants, including up to 1,500 foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks and Arabs.
Meanwhile, the army statement said six soldiers died in an army helicopter crash Saturday in the Bajur tribal region.
In other violence Sunday, a minister for education was fatally attacked by gunmen in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan province, police official Shahid Nizam said. A nationalist group, the Baluchistan United Liberation Front, claimed responsibility in calls to local media outlets.
The region has been the scene of a low-level insurgency for years to press demands for a greater share of oil and gas revenue in the province.