Soldiers fought for the Pakistani Taliban chief's hometown Wednesday as they pressed an offensive along the Afghan border, while intelligence officials said U.S. missiles hit territory controlled by another insurgent, threatening to undermine deals that keep some militants out of the battle.
The five-day-old offensive in South Waziristan is considered a critical test of nuclear-armed Pakistan's campaign against Islamist extremists blamed for soaring attacks at home and on Western forces in neighboring Afghanistan. On Tuesday, suicide attacks killed six people at a university in Islamabad, leading Pakistan to temporarily close all educational institutions.
The military is advancing on multiple fronts in South Waziristan, a tribal region home to al-Qaida fighters and Taliban insurgents who have focused on overthrowing the U.S.-allied Pakistani government.
The fight for the town of Kotkai is symbolically important because Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and a top deputy, Qari Hussain, hail from there. Kotkai also lies on the way to the major militant base of Sararogha.
An army statement Wednesday said forces were engaged in "intense encounters" in hills surrounding Kotkai and had secured an area to its east. Two intelligence officials said troops had secured parts of the town and destroyed Mehsud's and Hussain's homes, but army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas denied that late Wednesday, saying there was no significant fighting inside the town yet.
The army believes Mehsud and Hussain remain in the region directing militants' defenses.
Security forces on another front cleared Khaisura, a village dotted with heavily fortified bunkers complete with six-foot-thick concrete walls, the army said. The statement reported three more soldiers were killed, bringing the army's death toll so far to 16, while 15 more militants were slain, bringing their death toll to 105.
It is nearly impossible to independently verify information coming from South Waziristan because the army has closed off all roads to the region. Analysts say both sides have exaggerated successes and downplayed losses in the past.
'Neutral' target hit
The missile strike Wednesday targeted Spalaga, a village with at least 1,000 homes in the North Waziristan tribal region. Two intelligence officials said at least two suspected insurgents were killed. Their exact identities were not immediately known.
All the intelligence officials interviewed Wednesday requested anonymity because they also were not authorized to speak to media.
The U.S. has launched scores of missiles in South and North Waziristan over the past year, including one that killed former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in August, but the latest strike was especially sensitive.
It hit territory controlled by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a militant leader the army has coaxed into remaining neutral during the offensive against the Mehsud faction in South Waziristan. Pakistan considers Bahadur, along with militant leader Maulvi Nazir of South Waziristan, lesser priorities because they focus on battling U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, not targets inside Pakistan.
Analysts said the missile strikes, which have long angered ordinary Pakistanis and motivated militant fighters, could stir fury among Bahadur's insurgents, straining the deals with the army.
"This has the potential of messing up the calculus of the Pakistanis," said Kamran Bokhari, an analyst with Stratfor, a U.S.-based global intelligence firm. "It could broaden the scope of the war for the Pakistanis, which they're not prepared for at this time."
An AP photographer in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, took photos of two small girls allegedly wounded in the strike.
Aslam Din, who identified himself as the father of Sameeda Gul and Fatima Gul, said the girls were playing in the compound in Spalaga during the attack and were wounded by shrapnel.
Sameeda, who appeared to be around 6, was hurt in her right leg, while Fatima, around 4, had head injuries. Neither injury appeared to be life-threatening. Din would not discuss who was staying in the guesthouse struck by the missiles.
Covert drone strikes
Pakistan routinely condemns the American missile strikes as violations of its sovereignty, warning that the civilian casualties they cause deepen anti-U.S. sentiment and complicate the fight against terrorism.
But many suspect the two countries have a deal allowing the drone-fired attacks. U.S. officials rarely discuss the covert operation, but have said in the past that it has killed several top militant leaders and is too valuable to set aside.
U.S. officials hope that Pakistan will eventually broaden its fight to include all insurgent factions, and have routinely dismissed peace deals as tools that strengthen insurgent groups. But for now, some American officials have said it is logical for the Pakistani military to target its top internal enemy.
The army has deployed some 30,000 troops to South Waziristan against about 12,000 Taliban militants, including up to 1,500 foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks and Arabs.
In a statement late Tuesday, the chairman of Pakistan's Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Gen. Tariq Majid, appealed to Western forces to aid the South Waziristan offensive by sealing the border on the Afghan side, preventing the flow of militants and weapons.
The United Nations says at least 32,000 people have fled South Waziristan over the last week, joining more than 80,000 people who left earlier when the army began making preparations for the offensive. Authorities say more are likely to leave in coming weeks, but don't expect to have to house them in camps because most have relatives in the region.