Pakistan army claims more advances in offensive

ISLAMABAD – The Pakistani army claimed advances in its eight-day old offensive in a Taliban stronghold along the Afghan border Sunday, while the militants’ chief warned of more terrorist attacks around the country unless the military halted the assault.

The army moved into South Waziristan vowing to crush a militant network it says is behind 80 percent of the suicide bombings that have rocked the country over the last three years. Washington has encouraged the operation because militants there are believed to shelter al-Qaida leaders and attack Western troops in Afghanistan.

The military announced Saturday its first major achievement, 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 militant base of Sararogha, and an 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.

The militants have fled Kotkai and are sporadically attacking troops with rockets from high ground, the military 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.

Most homes in Kotkai had been converted into bunkers and the town had hosted a training camp for suicide bombers, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.

Over the past three weeks, the Taliban have carried out a string of bombings and commando-style raids across the country in response to the air and ground offensive. About 200 people have been killed in the onslaught.

In a telephone call to an Associated Press reporter from an undisclosed location, Taliban chief Mehsud said, “We have not suffered any significant losses in Waziristan.”

He threatened to turn Pakistan into “another Afghanistan or Iraq” unless the assault stopped.

Abbas declined to comment on Mehsud’s remarks.

In the latest attack Sunday, a suicide bomber blew up a car packed with explosives on the highway near Jhelum city, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Islamabad, police official Waseem Kausar said.

He said the car was stopped by police, then 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 U.N. says some 155,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan.

The army has deployed some 30,000 troops to the tribal region to take on an estimated 12,000 militants, including up to 1,500 foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks and Arabs.

In other violence Sunday, a minister for education was assassinated 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.

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