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Pakistan says 60 militants killed; Taliban says it pushed back troops

Conflicting reports emerge a day after thousands of soldiers launch an offensive against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in South Waziristan. 'We have not been weakened,' a Taliban spokesman says.

October 19, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — On the second day of Pakistan's major offensive to uproot the Taliban from tribal areas along the Afghan border, the military claimed to have killed 60 militants, while the Taliban countered that it had fended off the troops' initial onslaught.

Wildly differing interpretations of progress being made on both sides are expected to continue as the military proceeds with its most crucial ground operation so far in its war against Islamic militants.

Pakistani army officials said Sunday that 60 militants and five soldiers were killed during the first 24 hours of the offensive, in which thousands of troops have been moved into a large section of South Waziristan considered a stronghold for militants loyal to Taliban leader Hakimullah Mahsud and his predecessor, Baitullah Mahsud, as well as Al Qaeda fighters. Baitullah Mahsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike Aug. 5.

The military also said it had destroyed six Taliban antiaircraft gun positions and found locations that Taliban militants fled, leaving behind their firearms and ammunition. Pakistani fighter jets Sunday pounded suspected Taliban hide-outs in the villages of Ladha and Makeen, military officials said.

The Taliban painted a very different picture of the initial fighting, saying its fighters succeeded in pushing back Pakistani troops and inflicting heavy casualties.

"We have not been weakened," Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said. "Our morale is high and we will fight it out."

Neither side's claims can be verified because the government is denying access to the region.

The offensive, which began early Saturday, is seen as the key to success in crushing a militancy that for years has used suicide bombings and other acts of violence to destabilize the nuclear-armed nation of 170 million people.

The government believes that more than 80% of terrorist attacks inflicted on Pakistan were generated from the rugged, underdeveloped Waziristan region.

For months, Washington has pushed the government in Islamabad to forge ahead with the offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, which has provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda leaders and fighters. Experts estimate that about 10,000 militants are braced for battle in South Waziristan, including 1,200 Al Qaeda-allied Uzbek fighters.

The military is using 30,000 troops in the operation, and relying on fighter jets and helicopter gunships to bomb Taliban hide-outs and bunkers in the ridges and plateaus that dominate the landscape.

Asked about the Waziristan offensive during an interview with CNN on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Pakistani military was "very much focused on also going into the heartland of where the Pakistan Taliban and Al Qaeda are located, and where these plots and these attacks are planned and directed.

"So I think that they understand that there is a direct threat to them, which they are addressing, which I think is all to the good," Clinton added.

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus was expected to arrive in Pakistan today for talks with Pakistani military commanders about the Waziristan operation.

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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