Taliban retake town as Pakistan offensive runs into trouble

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 20, 2009 

A Pakistani tribal girl flees with her family from South Waziristan. As many as 150,000 civilians have left the region in recent months.

IJAZ MUHAMMAD / AP

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — Taliban guerrillas recaptured the birthplace of the Pakistani Taliban leader from the Pakistani army Tuesday, inflicting the heaviest military losses so far in Pakistan's high-stakes offensive in South Waziristan, a refuge for Pakistani extremists, Afghan insurgents and al Qaida.

A government attempt to foment a tribal uprising against the Pakistani Taliban also failed Tuesday. In a meeting with the top Pakistani official for the tribal areas, elders of the area's Mehsud clan refused a request to form a traditional militia, known as a lashkar, to battle the Taliban who've taken over their territory.

Separately, two suicide bomb blasts at an Islamic university in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, killed six people and wounded at least 20. In response, many educational institutions, including all schools and colleges in the Punjab, the country's most heavily populated province, announced that they'd close.

The Pakistani offensive appears to be first serious operation against extremists in South Waziristan since 2004, when the military entered the area for the first time. Pakistan has thrown some 30,000 soldiers into the fight against an estimated 10,000 Taliban, plus some 1,500 foreign jihadists closely liked to al Qaida.

However, Kotkai, a town surrounded by high mountains in the Sararogha area of South Waziristan, remained in Taliban hands late Tuesday after Pakistani forces were beaten back on the fourth day of the ground operation in South Waziristan.

The town is the birthplace of Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban. The group's top trainer of suicide bombers, Qari Hussain, also comes from Kotkai, and he has a madrassa, or Islamic school, just outside the town in which hundreds of children and young men have been indoctrinated into suicide attacks.

Security officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to journalists, said that Pakistani troops had thrust into Kotkai only to be hit by a determined counteroffensive that killed seven soldiers, including an army major, and wounded seven more.

There was no official announcement about the Kotkai clash. In a statement, the army reported that four soldiers had been killed and three wounded Tuesday in South Waziristan, but those casualties were sustained elsewhere, bringing the total to 13 soldiers killed since the operation began Saturday. Twelve "terrorists" also were killed Tuesday, the army statement said, bringing the official total to 90.

"We gave them a really tough time in Kotkai," Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said, claiming that 40 to 45 soldiers had died in the battle. He said three militants were killed and four wounded in the Kotkai battle.

Meanwhile, Owais Ghani, the governor of the North West Frontier Province, who's in charge of the tribal area, which borders Afghanistan, called together Mehsud chiefs in the town of Tank on the edge of South Waziristan and asked them to join the fight.

In a letter dropped from a plane over the tribe's territory, Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, described the Mehsuds as courageous, loyal Pakistanis and urged them to "rise collectively" against the militants.

"The ongoing operation by the Pakistani army is not aimed at the patriotic Mehsud tribes," he wrote. "Instead, the target is for the good riddance of the Mehsud tribes from the cruel clutches of terrorist elements who have ruined the law and order and peace of this area."

However, the Taliban have cemented their hold on South Waziristan by killing hundreds of traditional tribal leaders, and the tribal chiefs told Ghani that, "In the current hazardous situation, it is not possible for us to support you," an official who was present told McClatchy.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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