| GEO Pakistan|
| SWA Operation: 60 militants dead: ISPR|
| Updated at: 0657 PST, Monday, October 19, 2009|
PESHAWAR: Taliban fighters mounted fierce resistance as jets pounded their bases and troops bore down on their leader's hometown Sunday, in a major offensive Pakistan says has killed 60 militants.
More than 100,000 people have fled South Waziristan, part of the tribal belt on the Afghan border that US officials call the most dangerous place on earth, staying with relatives or renting accommodation to escape the fighting.
Thousands of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters, heavily armed and well-trained, are holed up in the tribal belt, where the army says the offensive is concentrated on strongholds of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) movement.
On the second day of the offensive, Taliban armed with rockets and heavy weapons put up strong resistance at Sharwangi, an area of impenetrable forest high in the mountains, as fighter jets bombed positions, officials said.
Six soldiers had been killed since the assault began, including one who died when militants subjected the major military base at Razmak to a rocket attack overnight to retaliate against heavy air strikes, military officials said.
Pakistan said 60 Taliban followers had been killed, although the region is cut off from the outside world and information on casualties is impossible to verify independently.
"In last 24 hours, reportedly 60 terrorists have been killed in operation Rah-e-Nijat," the military said in a statement.
Ground forces launched the three-pronged push on Saturday, starting a much-anticipated assault in a bid to crush networks blamed for some of the worst attacks that have killed more than 2,250 people over the past two years.
"The resistance is not as stiff as we were expecting, maybe because we are still moving and not yet reached the strongholds of the Taliban like Kotkai, Makin, Ladha and Kanigurram," one military official said.
About 20,000-25,000 troops headed into action after Pakistan vowed to act following attacks that left more than 170 people dead in less than two weeks and embarrassed a nuclear-armed state on the frontline of the US-led war on terror.
Jets carried out blistering air strikes throughout Sunday, backing up troops who encountered resistance on the ground, a military official said, adding five Taliban hideouts had been destroyed.
Another official said the army captured rebel-held village Spinkair Raghzai, erecting a checkpoint en route to Kotkai, home town of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
Numerous previous offensives against militants in the tribal belt have had limited success, costing the lives of 2,000 troops and ending generally with peace agreements that critics say simply gave the enemy a chance to re-arm.
"The operation will continue until the objectives are achieved. The army has blocked all entry and exit points of Waziristan," said army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas.
Commanders have outlined an offensive lasting six to eight weeks, before the onset of winter snows.
There are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 TTP fighters in South Waziristan and up to 25,000 across Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt, which has a history of fierce independence.
Its tribesmen famously resisted the British in the 19th century and its mountain terrain is pockmarked with goat tracks, caves and thick forest.
"War in Waziristan will not be a simple one. Waziristan is like a black hole," Rahimullah Yusufzai, a tribal affairs expert, said.
US officials say Al-Qaeda fled into the tribal areas after US-led operations toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and is now using the area as a base for plotting attacks on the West.
Militants are believed to stockpile food and petrol in bunkers deep in the mountains.
Their arsenal includes rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and suicide vests. Ammunition supplies are thought to be sufficient to keep them fighting for several months without outside supply lines.
The offensive by Pakistani troops was accompanied by an indefinite curfew slapped on parts of South Waziristan, officials said.
Since August, more than 100,000 civilians have been registered by local authorities after fleeing South Waziristan, normally home to 600,000 people, said a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), Ariane Rummery.