LADDAH: The mud-compound, which had a part of its outer wall blown up by artillery fire, was used as an Al Qaeda training facility until recently.
Jihadi literature and guerilla training manuals, mostly in Arabic, lay in a heap amidst a huge pile of weapons left by the insurgents after security forces captured Laddah, a key militant stronghold in South Waziristan.
Army officials said on Tuesday that the place was used for militant as well as ideological training. ‘We have intercepted communications revealing the presence of a large number of foreign fighters in the area, mostly Arabs and Uzbeks,’ Brig Farrukh Jamal said.
The compound sits next to a sprawling fort, built by the British in 1932, which has been destroyed in the battle for the town which raged for several days.
The town looked deserted as its entire population of 10,000 has fled, leaving all their belongings. Many of the houses have been destroyed in intense shelling.
The devastation was worse in Sararogha, another major town in the region which was described by the army as the nerve-centre of the Taliban. Heaps of mud bricks and twisted iron were all that was left of the town after the forces seized it.
Soldiers took positions on the rubble of Sararogha fort, destroyed by the Taliban in an attack last year. There was not a single civilian to be seen in the devastated town, some 30km from Laddah.
‘We faced tough resistance from the insurgents, most of them Arabs and Uzbeks,’ said Brig Mohammed Shafiq whose forces captured Sararogha last week.
They had built long tunnels in the mountains from where it was very difficult to dislodge them, he said.
A ramshackle students’ hostel building was turned into insurgent headquarters. One of the rooms whose roof was blown up by a mortar shell was used as Taliban’s ‘Sharia court’.
A bloodstained shirt was strung from a pedestal fan. ‘No one should question the ruling of the Islamic court,’ read a directive issued by the Taliban high command.
A part of the building was also used for training suicide bombers. ‘Many of the suicide bombers involved in the recent attacks in Pakistani cities were trained here,’ said Brig Shafiq.
Military officials said they had captured most towns once under rebel control in a key district along the Afghan border.
More than 30,000 troops, backed by air force jets, launched the massive operation in South Waziristan on Oct 17, vowing to crush Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan which was blamed for most of the suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of people in recent months.
The capture of the two major towns has cleared the way for the forces to advance towards Makin, the hometown of slain Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
‘Our forces have already entered Makin and are engaged in street fighting,’ said Brig Jamal.
The military officials said the first part of the offensive, aimed at seizing control of the region once ruled by Taliban, would be over by the end of the current month — before a harsh winter sets in.
More than 500 militants have been killed in the fighting so far and 70 soldiers have lost their lives, Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, the chief military spokesman, said.
Maj-Gen Abbas told reporters escorted by the army into South Waziristan that forces had captured most of the population centres and disrupted the militants’ food supply line.
‘The myth has been broken that this was a graveyard for empires and it would be a graveyard for the army,’ Maj-Gen Abbas said. ‘Major towns and population centres have been secured.’
The military said there were around 10,000 militant fighters in the area. Most of them, including the top commander, are believed to have fled to other tribal areas, raising fears of a long-drawn guerilla war.
Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Taliban, in a video message on a militant website has denied the military’s claim, saying the insurgents had suffered much less casualties.
He also vowed to continue a guerilla war targeting security installations in major cities.
Although he had denied that the Taliban were responsible for a recent suicide bombing in a Peshawar market that killed more than 120 people, security officials said communication intercepted by intelligence agencies showed their involvement in attacks on civilians.
‘It is a part of their propaganda tactics to deny killing innocent people,’ an official said.
There are also strong concerns about maintaining the hold on the extremely treacherous terrain because of the collapse of civilian administration. The other major challenge being faced by the government is rehabilitation and reconstruction.
More than 300,000 people have left their homes and taken refuge in areas outside the conflict zone.
Analysts and officials said most of them had lost everything in the fighting and a massive effort would be needed to help them restart their lives.