(For more Pakistan and Afghanistan stories click on [ID:nAFPAK])
* Troops capture home town of "mentor of suicide bombers"
* U.S. encouraged by Pakistani offensive
* Stiffer resistance expected as militants are squeezed
By Kamran Haider
DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan, Oct 20 (Reuters) - Pakistani forces attacking Taliban militants in their South Waziristan stronghold have captured a town on the approach to a main insurgent base, security officials said on Tuesday.
The fighting for control of lawless South Waziristan is a major test of the government's ability to tackle an increasingly brazen insurgency that has seen a string of attacks in different parts of the country. [ID:SP464060]
Remote and rugged South Waziristan, with its rocky mountains and sparse forests cut through by dry creeks and ravines, is a global hub for militants, and the offensive is being closely followed by the United States and other powers embroiled in Afghanistan.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said he was encouraged by the the offensive but it was too early to gauge the impact. General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the region, held talks with Pakistani military and government officials on Monday.
The army says 78 militants and nine soldiers have been killed since the long-awaited offensive began on Saturday.
There was no independent verification of the tolls.
Soldiers backed by jet fighters and artillery seized Kotkai town in fighting late on Monday, security officials said.
"Forces carried out a mop-up operation in Kotkai after capturing it and they seized weapons and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) left by the militants," an intelligence official told Reuters.
Kotkai is the home town of Qari Hussain Mehsud, a senior Taliban commander known as "the mentor of suicide bombers", and is a gateway to a militant stronghold at Sararogha.
Military officials and analysts said forces had faced less resistance than expected, but heavy fighting was likely when soldiers approach militant sanctuaries in the forest-covered mountains.
About 28,000 soldiers are battling an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban, including about 1,000 tough Uzbek fighters and some Arab al Qaeda members.
The militants have had years to prepare their bunkers, [ID:nSP352683] but the army says it has surrounded the entire militant zone and was attacking from the north, southwest and southeast.
Foreign reporters are not allowed into the area, and it is dangerous even for Pakistani reporters to visit. Many of the Pakistani media based in South Waziristan have left.
More than 100,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan in anticipation of the offensive, with about 26,000 of them leaving since Oct. 13, the United Nations said.
Up to 200,000 people could flee, the army says.
The army has launched brief offensives in South Waziristan before, the first in in 2004 when it suffered heavy casualties before striking a peace pact.
This time, however, analysts say the army, the government and the general public all agree the time has come to deal with the Pakistani Taliban.
"I'm obviously encouraged by the Pakistani operations. I think that the terrorist attacks that have been launched inside Pakistan in recent days made clear the need to begin the deal with this problem," Gates said aboard a U.S. military aircraft.
"And so we obviously are very supporting of what the Pakistanis are doing. But it's very early yet." (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here) (Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel)