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Battle intensifies as Taliban retake Pakistani town

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - Taliban militants attacked Pakistani forces and recaptured a strategic town on Tuesday while two suicide bomb blasts at an Islamic university in the capital killed six people and wounded at least 20, officials said.

The government made an immediate link between the university attack and an offensive against the Taliban, with Interior Minister Rehman Malik saying “all roads are leading towards South Waziristan.”

Fighting for control of the lawless area is a major test of the government’s ability to tackle an increasingly brazen insurgency that has seen a string of attacks in various parts of the country.

The army on Monday captured the small town of Kotkai, the birthplace of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud on the approach to an insurgent base in south Waziristan, but militants struck back on Tuesday to retake it, security officials said.

Two suicide bomb blasts at the International Islamic University in Islamabad on Tuesday -- the first since the offensive began -- killed six people, including the bombers, and wounded at least 20, officials said.

The sprawling university teaches over 12,000 students, nearly half of them female and including hundreds of foreigners, focussing on education that incorporates Islam in modern times.

“Those who attacked the university have shown that they are neither friends of Islam nor of Pakistan,” minister Malik said. “Those carrying out this aggression are just testing nerves of our nation.”

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Remote and rugged South Waziristan, with its rocky mountains and patchy 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.

An intelligence official said jets bombed Taliban positions in and around Kotkai after the militant counter-attack.

The town, also the home town of Qari Hussain Mehsud, a senior Taliban commander known as “the mentor of suicide bombers,” is a gateway to a militant stronghold at Sararogha.

It is not possible to verify independently reports from the battle zone as foreign reporters are not allowed in and it is dangerous for Pakistani reporters to visit. Many of the Pakistani media based in South Waziristan have left.

The army says 90 militants and 13 soldiers have been killed since the long-awaited offensive began on Saturday.

“In last 24 hours ... 12 terrorists have been killed during security forces operations,” the military said in a statement, adding that four soldiers had died and three were wounded.

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There was no independent verification of the tolls.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said he was encouraged by 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.

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.

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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, but the army says it has surrounded the entire militant zone and was attacking from the north, southwest and southeast.

More than 100,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan in anticipation of the offensive, with about 26,000 of them leaving since October 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 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.”

Pakistani stocks fell 4.34 percent on Monday on worries about security, but rebounded on Tuesday, with the index closing up 1.68 percent at 9,569.06 points.

Additional reporting by Alamgir Bitani and Zeeshan Haider; Editing by David Fox