ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani soldiers have entered a main Taliban stronghold in South Waziristan near the Afghan border and are searching the area, the military said on Tuesday.
The army launched an offensive on October 17 aimed at rooting out and defeating Pakistani Taliban militants in their South Waziristan bastions.
Soldiers are advancing from three directions toward main bases, including the town of Sararogha, which the army said soldiers had entered.
“A search and clearance operation is on,” the army said in a statement.
South Waziristan’ rugged landscape of barren mountains and hidden ravines has become a global center of Islamist militancy and many foreign al Qaeda fighters are believed to be based there along with thousands of Pakistani insurgents.
The militants are being squeezed out of their strongholds but have retaliated by stepping up bomb attacks on urban targets.
At least 35 people were killed in the city of Rawalpindi on Monday as the government announced a reward for the capture, dead or alive, of the militant leaders.
Last week, in the deadliest attack in Pakistan in more than two years, more than 100 people were killed and scores more wounded when a car bomb went off in a crowded market in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Earlier Tuesday, the army said 21 militants and a soldier had been killed in South Waziristan over the previous 24 hours.
There was no independent verification of the casualties as reporters and other investigators are not allowed into the war zone.
The army offensive is closely watched by the United States and other powers embroiled in neighboring Afghanistan as the border area has become a sanctuary for insurgents from both countries.
An opinion poll released Tuesday showed a majority of Pakistanis supported the offensive in South Waziristan although more blamed the United States for the violence than blamed the Taliban.
Many Pakistanis are suspicious of the government’s support for the U.S-led global campaign against militancy and many have long opposed military action against Islamists.
But political analysts say the numerous bomb attacks in towns and cities over recent months have convinced many that action is necessary, and a research group said 51 percent of people supported the offensive..
“There is cautious support in Pakistani public opinion for the military action currently underway in South Waziristan,” the Gilani Research Foundation said in a release with details of the poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan, an affiliate of Gallup International.
Thirteen percent of more than 2,700 people surveyed across the country opposed the military action while 36 percent said they were unsure.
The violence has also hurt Pakistan’s stock market though the main index ended 0.75 percent up at 8,938.99 after falling more than 3 percent the previous day.