Pakistan Army Takes The Offensive

A Pakistan army offensive against al-Qaida and the Taliban in South Waziristan has entered its second day with dozens of casualties reported on both sides. The army operation, the biggest for six years, comes after weeks of air and artillery strikes against militant targets.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Pakistan, army troops exchanged heavy fire with Taliban militants today, one day after the military pressed into the extremist stronghold of South Waziristan. The offensive is regarded as the most critical and difficult yet for the Pakistani army, which has lost at least five soldiers and had 11 more injured in the last 24 hours. In a statement, the army claimed to have killed 60 militants.

From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The operation code-named Rah-e-Nijat, or Path of Deliverance, advanced on a wedge of territory considered to be a Taliban sanctuary. It's the base of the Mehsud tribe, from whom the Taliban draws much support. Hakimullah Mehsud now leads an estimated 10,000-strong force that includes foreign extremists and elements of al-Qaida.

In the past 24 hours, the army says security forces have captured strategic heights as they pressed in on the Mehsud area from three different directions. The military said troops also destroyed a half a dozen anti-aircraft positions and captured a cache of mines and IEDs.

There are reports that the Pakistani troops have encountered fierce resistance in day two of this operation. Issan(ph) Mehsud, an eyewitness close to the battle zone, told news agencies that the army appeared to be mostly relying on air strikes and artillery against the militants occupying high ground. Another resident said security forces had managed to partially occupy the town of Nawaz Court near the Mehsud stronghold which the army is attempting to encircle.

South Waziristan, which lies along the Afghan border, is described as one of the toughest terrains on which to fight an enemy. Pockets of this fiercely-guarded tribal area had already emptied out in anticipation of the army's offensive.

The law secretary of the tribal region said in the worst case as many as a quarter of the half a million people living there could become internally displaced by the fighting. Some 96,000 people have already registered with authorities - the vast majority of those seeking shelter with family and friends.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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