- The Washington Times - Monday, October 19, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan | Pakistani forces exchanged heavy fire Sunday with Taliban militants defending their heartland, a day after launching an offensive aimed at bringing the writ of the state to lawless lands on the Afghan border.

The army said 60 militants and five soldiers had been killed in the first 24 hours of a long-awaited offensive on the global Islamist hub of South Waziristan. Soldiers were securing territory while some militants were fleeing, it said.

There was no independent verification of the casualty toll.

The offensive follows militant attacks across the country - including an assault on army headquarters - in which more than 150 people were killed.

About 28,000 soldiers are battling an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban, including about 1,000 Uzbek fighters and some Arab al Qaeda members, Pakistani officials say. The militants have had years to prepare their defenses in the land of arid mountains and sparse forest cut by dried-up creeks and ravines.

The army says it has surrounded the militants in their main zone, a wedge of territory in the north of South Waziristan, and soldiers backed by aircraft and artillery are attacking from the north, southwest and southeast.

Government forces pushing down from the north were clashing with militants in Nawaz Kot town, intelligence officials and residents said.

“There was heavy firing until midnight and in the morning I saw tanks moving in and Taliban were firing rocket-propelled grenades,” said villager Gul Nawaz, who lives near Nawaz Kot.

The army has launched brief offensives in South Waziristan before, the first in 2004 when it suffered heavy casualties before striking a peace pact.

A Taliban spokesman said the army was being repulsed and he vowed attacks on supporters of President Obama.

“They’re trying to enter our land from all sides but we’ve repulsed their assault and they’ve suffered heavy losses,” spokesman Azam Tariq told Reuters news agency by telephone from an undisclosed location. One Taliban had been killed and three wounded, he said.

“The government has put the country’s sovereignty at stake to please Obama … we’ll attack his well-wishers everywhere.”

About 100,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan in anticipation of the offensive, with up to 16,000 of them coming out in the past few days, the army said. Most are staying with friends or at their own properties.

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