By Kamran Haider
SARAROGHA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani forces have captured most main Taliban bases in their offensive in South Waziristan and will soon fan out into the rugged countryside to hunt for militants there, commanders said on Tuesday.
Soldiers have advanced faster than expected in their month-long offensive, seizing main roads and Taliban bases but militant leaders have apparently melted away while their bombers have unleashed carnage in towns.
The United States, weighing options for how to turn an intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan, has welcomed the offensive but is keen to see Pakistan tackle Afghan Taliban factions based in lawless enclaves along the border.
Chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told reporters on a trip to South Waziristan with the army that some militants might have slipped out the region but many were hiding.
“We still believe many are still here. They have gone to the countryside, the forested areas, to villages and into the caves,” Abbas said.
“After taking complete control of the roads and the tracks, we are going to chase them in the forested areas, wherever they are hiding in the countryside,” he said.
More than 500 militants had been killed in the offensive since October 17 while 70 soldiers had been killed, he said.
There has been no independent verification of casualties as reporters and other independent observers are not allowed into the conflict zone except on an occasional trip with the military.
Highlighting fears that the militants have melted away to fight another day, the leader of the Taliban in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, telephoned the BBC to say he had escaped to Afghanistan and would soon launch raids against the army.
The army, which has largely cleared Swat of militants, said in July the valley’s Taliban leader, self-styled cleric Fazlullah, was believed to have been wounded. The government said in September he had been surrounded.
The army on Tuesday took reporters to the captured Taliban bastion of Sararogha in South Waziristan where former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a missile-firing U.S. drone aircraft on August 5.
Surrounded by barren, rocky ridges and cut through by dried-up streams, the settlement of mud-walled compounds was deserted of civilians. A security force fort that the militants captured was almost completely destroyed in the fighting.
HIDING IN CAVES
Soldiers displayed militant pamphlets including one on making bombs, captured ammunition and weapons, and pouched vests that suicide bombers pack with explosives and strap on.
Brigadier Mohammad Shafiq said his men had battled hard to capture the base: “Their defences were well-constructed and we faced extremely tough resistance.”
In the captured militant stronghold of Ladha, Brigadier Farrukh Jamal said his men had surrounded 35 militants hiding in forest-covered mountains nearby.
“They are hiding in caves and we will capture them soon or kill them,” Jamal said.
Several rifle shots rang out and smoke rose over the slopes where the militants were hiding.
Jamal said his men had cut militant supply lines and would soon be advancing into deep forest to the west.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, visiting people displaced by the fighting, said he hoped the South Waziristan offensive would be over earlier than expected and civilians could go home.
U.S. President Barack Obama is hoping the Pakistani army will soon direct its attention to the Afghan Taliban factions and has stepped up pressure on Pakistan to go after them, the New York Times reported on Monday.
Abbas said the expected defeat of the Taliban in South Waziristan would create new conditions and opportunities.
“It creates voids all around and will open more options for the state and military,” Abbas said.
“Maybe you don’t have to conduct more operations. By those effects you can achieve those objectives,” he said.