9b42c4f35ea58210VgnVCM200000e66411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2009-Q4Taliban leaders' home town taken8b42c4f35ea58210VgnVCM200000e66411ac____Taliban leaders' home town takenArmy says Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain, commander of the suicide bombers brigade, are now on the run.Islamabad<p>ISLAMABAD// Pakistan's army claimed yesterday to have taken control of the strategically important town of Kotkai in the north-western region of South Waziristan after a week of heavy fighting, as the military operation in the remote tribal region entered its seventh day.
Pakistani officials played up the symbolic significance of the victory as the town is home to the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud.</p>
<p>"The town of Kotkai has strategic and tactical importance," Major Gen Athar Abbas, the army spokesperson, said at a news briefing in Islamabad last night.
Kotkai is also the hometown of Qari Hussain, a notorious Taliban commander who heads the suicide bombers brigade of the Taliban.
"Both militant leaders are now on the run," Qamar Zaman Kaira, the Pakistani information minister, who flanked Major Gen Abbas at the news briefing, said.</p>
<p>Mr Kaira said the militants had started targeting civilians and "soft targets" after failing to put up resistance in front of the troops in South Waziristan. He was referring to a raft of terrorist attacks in the past few days when militants targeted a university in Islamabad and a hotel in north-western Peshawar.
Major Gen Abbas said troops were combing Kotkai, clearing it of landmines and booby traps. Most of the houses had been turned into fortified bunkers by the militants. The heights surrounding Kotkai had also been secured, he said.</p>
<p>Elsewhere in the rugged, tribal region, where a week ago the military launched a three-pronged offensive aided by artillery and Air Force fight jets, Major Gen Abbas said troops were facing stiff resistance at Tarkona Narai on the Shakai-Kaniguram axis on the far western edges of South Waziristan.
Major Gen Abbas claimed that militants had begun to flee and many were shaving and trimming their beards to help them escape.</p>
<p>It is not possible to verify claims made by the military or militants as South Waziristan is closed to journalists.
Pakistani officials also announced yesterday that most schools and colleges across the country would reopen tomorrow after they were ordered close last week because of alleged security threats. Major Gen Abbas also denied reports that a United States drone struck another tribal region of North Waziristan on Wednesday.</p>
<p>He said the reported explosion took place after explosives were being loaded into a vehicle and the subsequent blast killed scores of people and damaged three houses.
Officials stressed that neither the Pakistani government nor the military had asked for any assistance from the United States and reiterated that US drone strikes were unacceptable and counterproductive. "We are going on our own," Major Gen Abbas said. "Let us complete the job on our own."</p>
<p>However, privately Pakistan officials approve of drone strikes.
Pakistan's efforts to publicly distance itself from the United States represents the delicate balancing act successive governments have had to perform in presenting their relationship with Washington to a public wary of both increasing terrorist attacks and the perceived undermining of their country's sovereignty by western intervention.</p>
<p>Such concerns have split public opinion.
Several vocal opposition politicians and right-wing nationalists have criticised the current military operations, urging the government to seek the path of negotiation rather than force.
There is also much animosity towards the United States for its occupation of Afghanistan, its incursions into Pakistani tribal areas and its pressure on the Pakistani government.</p>
<p>One the other side, many are alarmed by increasing terrorist attacks and religious extremism and denounce the use of tribal areas by the Taliban and al Qa'eda.
"The mullah, at one time seen only at weddings and deaths, is now everywhere, including television, spewing for the most part his dirge of hate and intolerance," wrote Zafar Hilaly, a former ambassador, in The News, a leading English-language daily.</p>
<p>"It is for this reason that the outcome of the army operation in Waziristan is crucial to Pakistan's development as a modern and progressive nation."
But Raoof Hasan, a political analyst and columnist for The News, said it was necessary to address what he said were the root causes of regional terrorism, chief among them the US presence in Afghanistan. He also questioned the use of force.
"There is no denying that the terrorists have to be fought but can we do so by use of force only. Can the troops be placed in those areas permanently? They will be withdrawn. What happens next? Military force cannot bring a permanent solution," he said.</p>
<p>Mr Hasan said Pakistan was not fighting a war of its own, but rather one was that was "thrust on us", and he added that many people had taken up arms against the Pakistani army and security forces in protest and retaliation to their co-operation with the United States.
"We should not have become a proxy of the Americans," he said.
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