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October 23, 2009

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Pakistan on alert for more attacks

SUSPECTED militants on a motorbike shot and killed a senior army officer and a soldier in the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad yesterday, striking at security forces as the military wages a major anti-Taliban offensive in the northwest.

Civilians fleeing the army operation in South Waziristan said Taliban fighters were roaming freely through much of the area and digging in their positions, a sign of tough battles ahead.

The new South Waziristan offensive is considered a critical test of Pakistan's campaign against militants blamed for attacks inside the country and on Western forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Yesterday morning's attack in Islamabad was the latest in a wave of militant attacks that have killed more than 170 people across the country in the past three weeks.

The two gunmen fired on an army jeep in a residential area of the capital, police official Zaffar Abbas said. A soldier and a brigadier were killed, while the driver was wounded, according to authorities.

"Terrorists and extremists are behind this," said Islamabad's top police officer, Syed Kalim Imam.

The military is advancing on multiple fronts in South Waziristan. The exodus from the region has intensified since the ground offensive's launch on Saturday, and more than 100,000 people are said to have been displaced so far.

More than 300 tired and dusty refugees lined up to register for aid in one center in Dera Ismail Khan, a gritty town not far from the tribal belt, yesterday.

"We saw no ground forces on the way, not even any movement except helicopters and airplanes. But we saw a lot of Taliban movement," said Awal Jan, a refugee from Sarwakai town. "They were roaming around on their vehicles and digging trenches in the mountains."

Over the past few days, the army has been fighting for control of Kotkai, the hometown of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.

The battle for Kotkai is strategically important because it lies on the way to the major militant base of Sararogha. The army believes Mehsud and his deputy, Qari Hussain, remain in the region directing militants' defenses.

An army statement yesterday reported two more soldiers were killed, bringing the army's death toll to 18, while 24 more militants were slain, bringing their death toll to 129.

It is nearly impossible to independently verify information coming from South Waziristan because the army has closed off all roads to the region.


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