ISLAMABAD — Soldiers captured the strategically located hometown of Pakistan's Taliban chief on Oct. 24 after fierce fighting, officials said, the army's first major prize as it pushes deeper into a militant stronghold along the Afghan border.
Pakistan's eight-day-old offensive in the Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold of South Waziristan is considered its most critical test yet in the campaign to stop the spread of violent Islamist extremism in the Western-allied country. The army operation came amidst militant attacks that have killed approximately 200 people this month.
The battle for Kotkai lasted several days and involved aerial bombardment, as soldiers captured heights around the town. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said troops were now clearing the town of landmines and roadside bombs planted by the insurgents.
Kotkai is symbolically important because it is the hometown of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and one of his top deputies, Qari Hussain. It also lies on the road to the major militant base of Sararogha, making it a strategically important capture.
"Thank God, this is the army's very big success," Abbas said. "The good news is that [communications] intercepts show that there are differences developing in the Taliban ranks. Their aides are deserting them."
The government has pressed ahead in South Waziristan despite a wave of violence that has put the nation on edge. Bombings on Oct. 23 alone killed 24 people, including 17 headed to a wedding.
The army said that three more soldiers died, putting the army's death toll at 23, and 21 more militants had been killed, putting their overall death toll at 163.
The army has deployed around 30,000 troops to South Waziristan, against 12,000 Taliban militants, including up to 1,500 foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks and Arabs.