Pakistan's military says an anti-Taliban ground assault backed by air support is progressing well in the mountainous region near the Afghan border. Officials say that at least 78 insurgents and nine soldiers have died since the offensive was launched on Saturday. The fighting is taking place as U.S Central Command Chief David Peraeus and Senator John Kerry held talks with Pakistani leaders in Islamabad.
Pakistani authorities say the "decisive military" offensive is targeting insurgents in the South Waziristan tribal region where al-Qaida and Taliban militants have set up terrorist training facilities for staging attacks in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan.
Army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas says security forces have killed dozens of militants since the army launched its offensive on Saturday. The spokesman told a news conference Monday that troops have seized control of several key mountain tops and cleared villages.
"They had installed the anti-aircraft guns on top of the hill features, which were knocked out. So they were all prepared for defending the area (but) it is good tactics on our part that all those crucial weapon systems were knocked out in the first go so that had collapsed their defense and therefore they have vacated the area," Abbas said.
He says the area where militant leaders are based is under siege and there is almost no possibility of anyone escaping. But the spokesman would not set a timeframe for the military offensive to end.
"We are very confident that we have sufficient number of forces and we have adequate weaponry, arms and ammunition required for this operation. We are very confident that within these resources we will be able to complete the operation within the stipulated time," Abbas said.
Pakistani army commanders say some 30,000 troops are battling an estimated 10,000 fighters in the region, including foreigners. Authorities blame these extremists for 80 percent of the suicide attacks that have hit the country in recent years, killing hundreds of people.
The fighting comes as head of U.S Central Command David Petraeus met with Pakistani civilian and military leadership on Monday to discuss the ongoing anti-insurgency offensive.
The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, John Kerry, also held talks with Pakistani leaders in his bid to ease tensions over a $7.5 billion aid package for Islamabad. Opposition parties and military leaders have criticized some of the provisions in the U.S legislation they say undermine the country's sovereignty. Senator Kerry is a co-sponsor of the bill under which Pakistan will receive $1.5 billion for the next five years for economic and social programs. In his talks with Pakistani officials, the U.S Senator reiterated that Pakistani concerns over the bill are unfounded and it is meant to strengthen bilateral ties.
Tens of thousands of residents have already fled the South Waziristan region to take refuge in safer areas even before the fighting started. U.N and Pakistani officials say the number of displaced families could go over 200,000 but they are ready to deal with the possible humanitarian crisis.
The anti-insurgency military offensive follows a series of deadly suicide bombings across Pakistan that killed more than 150 people. Of the nine terror attacks this month, seven have targeted the country's security establishment, including the audacious assault on the army headquarters that left more than two dozen people dead including nine attackers.