PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani aircraft attacked Taliban in the South Waziristan region on Sunday a day after the army said it had captured a strategic town on an approach to the militants’ main base area.
Separately, gunmen on a motorcycle shot dead the minister of education in the provincial government in Baluchistan, a gas-rich southwestern province where separatist rebels have been waging a low-level insurgency for decades.
A separatist group claimed responsibility.
The army assault in the ethnic Pashtun tribal region of South Waziristan on the Afghan border is seen as a test of the government’s determination to tackle Islamists responsible for a string of attacks against government and other targets.
The United States and other powers embroiled in neighboring Afghanistan’s growing conflict want Pakistan to eliminate militant sanctuaries in its lawless northwest.
The latest bombardment in the week-old offensive was against militant bases in the three villages of Sam, Badr and Ladha, government and security officials said.
“It was intense bombing and later helicopter gunships attacked,” said an intelligence agency official who declined to be identified.
Several militant hideouts had been destroyed in the bombing, said a government official, adding he had no information about casualties. Military spokesman were not available for comment.
South Waziristan, a rugged land of rocky mountains and patchy forest, is a global hub of Islamist militancy. Foreign fighters including Uzbeks and Arab al Qaeda supporters are fighting alongside the Taliban.
Soldiers are advancing on the militants’ main stronghold area from three directions.
“HANDFUL OF TERRORISTS”
Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani visited troops in the region’s main town of Wana and said the battle was not against any tribe but a “handful of terrorists” who had made people “hostage to their anti-state agenda,” the army said.
Forces moving in from the southeast had taken control of Kotkai town, the birthplace of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and the home of Qari Hussain Mehsud, a commander known as “the mentor of suicide bombers,” the army said on Saturday.
The small town is a gateway to main militant strongholds and intelligence officials said government forces killed at least 15 militants in a heavy clash as they pushed beyond Kotkai.
Reporters do not have access to the area.
About 150,000 people have fled their homes in South Waziristan but aid officials do not expect the exodus to become a humanitarian crisis, as did a similar offensive in the Swat valley this year.
In Baluchistan, a spokesman for a separatist group telephoned the Online news agency to claim responsibility for the killing of provincial education minister Shafiq Ahmed Khan, who was shot in the provincial capital, Quetta, the news agency said.
Separatists are fighting to control the province’s gas and other resources.
In Islamabad, visiting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Pakistani counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani, said they would work together to fight terrorism.
The militants have been attacking security forces and other targets in towns and cities and the violence has been hurting Pakistani stock market trade with the main index down 7 percent last week.