U.S. military chief visits as Pakistan battles militants

Tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians have fled military operations against Taliban militants in South Waziristan.
The regional U.S. military commander was visiting Pakistan on Monday as that country’s military continued its massive ground offensive against Taliban militants in the restive northwest tribal region.

Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, was holding meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in Islamabad. Also there, on a separate visit, was U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the former presidential candidate who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Gilani told Petraeus it was important that Pakistan and the U.S. work together “to bridge the trust deficit,” according to Agence-France Presse. Gilani called for more international aid for relief efforts and reconstruction in the tribal region of South Waziristan, a refuge and a power base for insurgents operating in Pakistan and along the Pakistani-Afghan border. Petraeus said the United States “acknowledges the sacrifices of Pakistan in the war on terror,” AFP said. The visits of Petraeus and Kerry came as Pakistani ground troops, backed by air power, moved into South Waziristan. The highly anticipated offensive follows a wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan and has prompted the exodus of tens of thousands of civilians, a U.N. refugee agency said. Though the offensive is not the first, it is the most important, Pakistani military spokesman Major Gen. Athar Abbas told CNN, “because we have concluded that this area has become the center of gravity of the problem.” Watch how the offensive began One military official said Pakistani troops had seized control of Kotkai, the home village of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and Talibancommander Qari Hussein. Hussein masterminded some of Pakistan’s deadliest suicide attacks.

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Strikes by jet fighters and helicopter gunships targeted militant hideouts in Kotkai and the villages of Badar, Barwand and Khisur — all strongholds of the Taliban and their late leader Baitullah Mehsud, another official told CNN. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. For months, the military have targeted militant hideouts in South Waziristan and other hotspots in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Earlier this year, troops launched a large operation targeting militants in the Swat Valley, in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. Despite such efforts, insurgents have continued to strike with relative impunity in Pakistan, targeting government, police and security locations.

The recent wave of deadly attacks has raised concerns about the ability of Pakistan’s security forces to maintain control. The violence also has heightened internal and international pressure on the government to take swift and effective action. Pakistani officials said about 10,000 to 15,000 militants linked to the Taliban or to al Qaeda operate in South Waziristan, a harsh terrain familiar to militants but difficult for others to navigate. About 28,000 Pakistani soldiers have moved into the epicenter of Taliban activity in the region to counter their activities, officials said.