Loi Sam, Pakistan A two-month offensive by Pakistani forces has driven militants from a stronghold through which Taliban and al-Qaida fighters had poured into neighboring Afghanistan to attack U.S. troops, the army said Saturday.
But operation claimed the lives of at least 95 civilians - whose deaths are a critical issue here that observers warn can only increases sympathy for the militants.
The military said its forces captured Loi Sam in the Bajur tribal region Friday after a long and bloody struggle. The town sits on a vital intersection linking the border to three neighboring Pakistan regions.
"Now we have complete control in this area from where miscreants used to go to Afghanistan, Mohmand, Dir and Swat," army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters flown in to Bajur by military helicopter. "Miscreants have been expelled or killed."
Bajur is part of Pakistan's tribal belt that has become the stronghold of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters waging an intensifying insurgency on both sides of the border.
The army offensive in Bajur was launched in early August, after government officials declared it a "mega-sanctuary" for militants who had set up a virtual mini-state, complete with Taliban-style courts.
U.S. officials worried about record fatalities among their forces in Afghanistan have praised the operation and said it was helping reduce violence on the Afghan side. But the Americans have not halted missile strikes on suspected militants hide-outs in other parts of Pakistan's wild border region, despite Islamabad's protests that the attacks violate its sovereignty.
The army says it faced stiff resistance near Loi Sam from Taliban militants reinforced by foreign fighters, including some from Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, who commands a paramilitary force, said it could still take six months to a year to gain complete control of Bajur.
Violence and government restrictions have made it virtually impossible to verify accounts of the fighting.
Khan said a total of 1,500 suspected militants had died in the operation along with 73 army soldiers.
The region has been seen as a possible hiding place for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, but Khan said the troops had not picked up their trail.
Khan's count of 95 civilian deaths was the first official estimate of noncombatants killed in the fighting. He didn't say whether they were killed by militants or troops, though officials have acknowledged that artillery and airstrikes have devastated many residential areas.
Pakistan's government has promised to flood the border area with development work, much of it funded by Washington, to combat the misery and ignorance in which religious extremism has thrived.
Observers say Pakistani authorities and their Western backers have failed to keep such promises in the past, breeding distrust of the government in a region where it has never had control.
U.S. troops arrived in Pakistan this month to provide training to the paramilitary Frontier Corps in an attempt to transform it into the main fighting force along the border.