Image: Army tank in Pakistan
Qazi Tariq  /  AP
An army tank is transported by a truck passing through Bara, Pakistan, on Sunday.
updated 10/18/2009 9:58:10 PM ET 2009-10-19T01:58:10

Pakistani troops and the Taliban fought fierce battles in a militant sanctuary near the Afghan border, with both sides claiming early victories in an army campaign that could shape the future of the country's battle against extremism.

A Taliban spokesman vowed the Islamist militants would fight to "our last drop of blood" to defend their stronghold of South Waziristan, predicting the army would fail in its latest attempt to gain control over it.

The army said Sunday that 60 militants and six soldiers had been killed since the offensive began Saturday in the mountainous, remote region that the army has tried and failed to wrest from near-total insurgent control three times since 2004.

The Taliban claimed to have inflicted "heavy casualties" and pushed advancing soldiers back into their bases. It was not possible to independently verify the claims because the army is blocking access to the battlefield and surrounding towns.

Victory for the government in South Waziristan's tribal badlands would eliminate a safe haven for the Taliban militants blamed for surging terrorist attacks and the al-Qaida operatives they shelter there. It would also send a signal to other insurgent groups in the nuclear-armed country of the military's will and ability to fight them.

Defeat would give the militants a propaganda victory, add to pressures on the country's shaky civilian government and alarm Pakistan's Western allies, which want to see it successfully crack down on militancy that is both fueling and feeding off the insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan.

"We know how to fight this war and defeat the enemy with the minimum loss of our men," Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told The Associated Press from an undisclosed location. "This is a war imposed on us, and we will defend our land until our last man and our last drop of blood. This is a war bound to end in the defeat of the Pakistan army."

Despite his comments, the some 10,000 Pakistani militants and about 1,500 foreign fighters are seen as unlikely to stand and fight. Instead, they will likely do as they have done in other parts of the northwest: Avoid conventional battles and launch guerrilla attacks on stationary troops or long supply lines.

Accounts from residents and those fleeing Sunday suggested that the some 30,000 government troops pushing into the region from three directions were facing much tougher resistance than they saw in the Swat Valley, another northwestern region where the army defeated the insurgents earlier this year.

"Militants are offering very tough resistance to any movement of troops," Ehsan Mahsud, a resident of Makeen, a town in the region, told the AP in the town of Mir Ali, close to the battle zone. He and a friend arrived there early Sunday after traveling through the night.

Mahsud said the army appeared to be mostly relying on airstrikes and artillery against militants occupying high ground. He said the insurgents were firing heavy machine guns at helicopter gunships, forcing the air force to use higher-flying jets.

The militants control roughly 1,275 square miles of territory, or about half of South Waziristan, in areas loyal to former militant chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. missile strike in August. His clansman Hakimullah Mehsud now leads the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban Movement, an umbrella organization of several Islamist militant factions seeking to overthrow the secular government.

Officials have said they envisage the operation will last two months, when winter weather will make fighting difficult.

A resident in Wana — the main town in South Waziristan and in the heart of Taliban-held territory — said the insurgents had left the town and were stationed on the borders of the region, determined to block any army advance.

"All the Taliban who used to be around here have gone to take their position to protect the Mehsud boundary," Azamatullah Wazir said by telephone Sunday. "The army will face difficulty to get in there."

As many as 150,000 civilians — possibly more — have left in recent months after the army made clear it was planning an assault, but as many as 350,000 could still be in the region. The United Nations has been stockpiling relief supplies in a town near the battle zone.

Once it became clear two weeks ago that a military offensive was imminent, the Taliban unleashed a torrent of attacks around the country, including a 22-hour siege of army headquarters last weekend.

Taliban spokesman Tariq said the insurgents were also behind the two latest attacks: three commando-style raids on law enforcement agencies in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday that killed about 30 people, as well as the deadly bombing of a police station in the northwestern city of Peshawar a day later.

More on: Pakistan | Baitullah Mehsud

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Pakistan mounts assault against insurgents

  1. Closed captioning of: Pakistan mounts assault against insurgents

    >>> and britain in the attack.

    >>> a new offensive underway in pakistan tonight is closely watched in in country. the target is the al qaeda and taliban stronghold near the afghanistan border. long considered a launching pad for attacks in pakistan and on u.s. forces in the region. the latest from nbc's stephanie goss in islamabad .

    >> reporter: the pitched battle has forced a wave of desperate refugees out. an estimated 150,000 have fled since the offensive was announced. at border towns police are checking i.d.s and searching vehicles, worried that taliban and al qaeda fighters might try to slip out. it's the largest military operation against islamic militants in pakistan ever. 30,000 troops supported by an arsenal of f-16 fighter jets and cobra helicopter gun ships. it's a rugged region near the afghan border. it's long been the primary safe haven to militants, and it's the suspected hiding place of osama bin laden . thousands of fighters are dug in there using caves and tunnels for protection.

    >> so you can get them, if you know where they are. you have to be accurate in your information and timely. because they keep on moving .

    >> reporter: the u.s. has been putting pakistan to crack down on militants within its borders for a long time. not only because of the threat they pose to u.s. forces in the region, but because the very stability of pakistan , a key nuclear armed american ally, is at stake. approximate the follows a week of widespread violence throughout pablg stan. militants killed an estimated 150 people in a wave of well-orchestrated brazen attacks against security installations. islamabad is on red alert . security officials are concerned that the capital could be the taliban 's next target. around the city the number of checkpoints has doubled. almost every car is stopped and searched. with violence on the rise this year, sympathy for islamic militants has slipped.

    >> translator: i think it's a good step. i hope it will eliminate terrorists and help maintain peace.

    >> reporter: success won't be easy. two failed attempts in the past led to short-lived peace deals with the taliban , but this time the military says they will crush them. stephanie goss, nbc news, islamabad .

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