Pakistan seizes militant stronghold

LOI SAM, Pakistan — Pakistan’s army captured a key militant stronghold near the Afghan border, a breakthrough in a bloody push against the Taliban and al-Qaida that has claimed 95 civilian lives, the military said Saturday.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said troops on Saturday captured Loi Sam, a town in the Bajur region sitting on a vital intersection connecting the border to three neighboring Pakistani regions.

“Now we have complete control in this area from where miscreants used to go to Afghanistan,” Abbas said Saturday. “Miscreants have been expelled or killed.”

Pakistan’s army launched an offensive in Bajur in early August, saying the region had become a “mega-sanctuary” for militants waging an intensifying insurgency on both sides of the frontier.

U.S. officials praised the operation, saying it had helped reduce violence on the Afghan side of the border.

However, there has been no halt to the regular American missile strikes on suspected militants hideouts in other parts of Pakistan’s wild frontier region, despite Islamabad’s protests the attacks violate its sovereignty.

Commanders had reported stiff resistance near Loi Sam from local Taliban militants reinforced by foreign fighters including some from Afghanistan.

Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, who commands the paramilitary border force, said it could take authorities six months to a year to gain complete control of Bajur.

The region has been mentioned as a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri, but Khan said troops found no sign of them.

Violence and government restrictions have made it virtually impossible to verify accounts of the fighting.

Khan said a total of 1,500 suspected militants and 73 troops have died in the operation so far. He also said 95 civilians had died — the first official estimate of the toll on innocents.

He did not say how they died, but officials have acknowledged artillery and airstrikes devastated many residential areas.

Nearly 200,000 people have fled the fighting, many of them to camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The military launched the Bajur operation after militants attacked troops trying to set up a checkpoint in Loi Sam on Aug. 8.

In Loi Sam itself, hardly a building escaped: Houses, shops and gas stations were badly damaged or destroyed. The only people on the streets were soldiers, several of them firing shells at a supposed militant hide-out.

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