After eight days of pitched battles, the Pakistan army captured the strategically located hometown of Taliban chief Hakimullah in South Waziristan as a US drone strike in the adjoining Bajaur district killed 18 terrorists, missing by minutes a top militant commander.
Pakistani troops entered Kotkai, the hometown of Hakimullah Mehsud and his close aide Qari Hussain, also known as trainer of suicide bombers, late on Saturday night after subjecting the village to heavy bombing by fighters and attack helicopters. In the intense battle, 13 militants and two soldiers were killed, raising the Taliban death toll during Operation Rah-e-Nijat to 163. The capture of the town was announced by a military statement and this opens the way for troops to assault the Taliban main hubs of Saragoha and Jandola.
The army had begun to clear the town of landmines and roadside bombs planted by the Taliban, the army said. It announced that its forces were targetting top Taliban leadership. Military sources said both Hakimullah and Hussain were not present when the troops entered Kotkai, but they believe that the two commanders are present in the area directing militant operations. As the army operation entered a crucial phase, US drones, after a brief lull, struck on Saturday at a Taliban hideout in Chuhacra village in Bajaur, killing 18 militants including kin of top Taliban commander Maulvi Faqir Mohamad.
The Taliban chieftain escaped by a whisker, having left the hideout 10 minutes before the hellfire missiles crashed in. The son-in-law and nephew of Faqir Mohammad and at least three foreign fighters were among the dead. The death toll could rise as some of the injured are in a critical condition, reports said.
Local officials were quoted by private TV channels that hideout had tunnels dug under it and the target of the drone apparently was Faqir Mohammad, who was deputy to the slain Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud and had declared himself outfit's chief after Baitullah's killing.
The drone attack came after a relative lull in such strikes in the tribal belt over the past few weeks. Reports have said the US decided to cut down on drone attacks due to the operation launched by the Pakistan Army against the Taliban in South Waziristan.
Claiming that the Waziristan offensive was progessing well, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the campaign would be taken to its logical conclusion. "Failure is not an option despite the ferocity of these attacks," a statement released by Gilani's office quoted him as saying. Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has said the offensive was moving ahead successfully and the aim of the army was to keep the civilian causalities down.