The army claimed Pakistan's Taliban were in disarray after soldiers captured the hometown of the militants' chief Saturday, a strategic prize as the military pushes deeper into an insurgent stronghold along the Afghan border.
The Taliban militants have carried a string of terrorist strikes in Pakistani cities in response to the operation. A suicide bomber in a car killed a police officer early Sunday on a highway that runs between the capital Islamabad and Lahore.
The 8-day-old air and ground offensive in the South Waziristan tribal region is a key test of nuclear-armed Pakistan's campaign against Islamist militancy. It has already spurred a civilian exodus and deadly retaliatory attacks.
Washington has encouraged the operation in the northwest because many militants there are believed to shelter al-Qaida leaders and are also suspected to be involved in attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has also kept up its own missile strikes in the lawless tribal belt, including a suspected one that killed 22 Saturday.
The army announced Saturday the capture of Kotkai town — hometown of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and one of his top deputies, Qari Hussain. It also lies along the way to the major militant base of Sararogha, making it a strategically helpful catch.
The fight was intense, taking several days and involving aerial bombardment, officials said.
The majority of homes in the town were converted into "strong bunkers" and it also was home to a training camp for suicide bombers, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters. Troops had begun ridding it of land mines and roadside bombs.
"Thank God, this is the army's very big success," Abbas said. "The good news is that (communications) intercepts show that there are differences forging among the Taliban ranks. Their aides are deserting them."
Abbas said some of the fleeing Taliban have shaved their beards and cut their hair to try to blend in with the civilian population.
Taliban spokesmen could not immediately be reached for comment.
Three soldiers and 21 militants died in the most recent fighting in the region, the army said. Because it has blocked access to South Waziristan, independently verifying such reports is all but impossible.
The government has forged ahead in South Waziristan despite a wave of violence that has put the nation on edge. Some 200 people have been killed in a variety of militant attacks across the country this month.
Suicide bomber kills one
In the latest attack, a suicide bomber blew up a car packed with explosives on the highway near Jhelum city, some 60 miles south of Islamabad, police official Waseem Kausar said.
He said the car was stopped by police, and one man inside fled and was caught, while the other detonated the bomb, killing a patrol officer. The man now in custody told police they had planned to detonate the bomb in Lahore, Kausar said.
Another police official, Aslam Tareen, said about 66 pounds of explosive had been planted in the car.
The U.N. says some 155,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan. In Dera Ismail Khan, a nearby town where many of those fleeing have congregated, the refugees reacted to the news of Kotkai's capture with suspicion.
"They are making tall claims of conquering Waziristan in a few weeks, but we think this is not doable even in five to six years," said Azam Khan Mehsud, who hails from the Makeen area.
Others noted that Pakistan had failed at least three times before to wrest the region from the Taliban and said they feared the damage the army might cause.
"Years ago, the army suddenly started an operation and we all had to leave our area in the clothes we were wearing," said Abdul Samad Khan, 65, a farmer from the Spinkai Raghzai area. "When we returned to our area all our homes were either bombed, bulldozed or torched. Our animals were missing. Now imagine, if they come with more might, what they will do with our area."
Missile strikes, militant targets
The army has deployed some 30,000 troops to South Waziristan to take on an estimated 12,000 militants, including up to 1,500 foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks and Arabs.
The U.S. has launched scores of missile strikes at militant targets in Pakistan's tribal belt over the past year, killing several top insurgents including former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
The latest strike hit Chuhatra village in the tribal region of Bajur on Saturday, local government official Mohammad Jamil said.
The target appeared to be Faqir Mohammad, a prominent Taliban leader, but he is believed to have escaped the hide-out by minutes, Jamil said. Most of the 22 killed were Afghan nationals, he said.
Pakistan formally protests the missile strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and raise sympathy for the Taliban, while the U.S. rarely discusses the attacks. However, analysts believe the two sides have a secret deal allowing the strikes.