ISLAMABAD - Pakistan pressed an offensive deeper into Taliban territory along the Afghan border yesterday, saying that 42 militants were killed in the latest stage of an assault seen as crucial in defeating extremism in the nuclear-armed country.
The assault into South Waziristan’s unforgiving mountains has triggered a bloody backlash from militants, who are determined to bring the war out of the remote northwestern region and into the country’s cities in hopes of eroding public and political support.
In the capital, Islamabad, gunmen attacked a high-ranking Pakistani army officer in the second targeted shooting against top military brass in less than a week. The army officer and his mother, who was traveling with him, escaped unhurt.
The fight in South Waziristan is seen as a major test of Pakistan’s will and ability to tackle the northwestern strongholds of Al Qaeda-allied extremists. The army already has been beaten back from the region three times since 2004.
Pakistan has been criticized in the past for not cracking down on Islamist militant groups it once nurtured as proxies to fight in India and Afghanistan. It remains unclear whether the army has committed enough troops to the current campaign to hold the territory it is seizing.
An army statement said troops were progressing well on three fronts in South Waziristan, but were meeting resistance.
It said that over the last 24 hours, 42 militants and one soldier had been killed. Since the assault began, the army reports having killed 231 insurgents and lost 29 soldiers. It has given no figures for civilian casualties.
Independent verification of army reports in the region is all but impossible because the military has blocked access for journalists and humanitarian workers.
Yesterday in Islamabad, gunmen attacked an army brigadier, equivalent to a brigadier general in the US Army, as he was driving to a bank in a residential area. Muhammad Imran, who runs a business nearby, said he saw a young man take out a weapon from beneath his shawl and unleash a hail of bullets as the car slowed down for a speed bump.
“He was firing relentlessly. He was targeting the front seat of the car,’’ Imran said.
Another young man on a motorcycle then appeared and the two sped away, Imran said.
Senior police officer Bin Yamin said the army officer, who was not identified, was not in uniform but was driving a government car.
Last Thursday, gunmen on a motorcycle fired on an army jeep in Islamabad, killing a brigadier and a soldier in what was believed to be the first assassination of an army officer in the capital.
Militant attacks in Pakistan have surged this month, killing more than 200 people.
The army has deployed some 30,000 troops to South Waziristan against an estimated 12,000 militants. The UN says some 155,000 civilians have fled the region.