MIRANSHAH, Pakistan: Pakistan's military says its anti-militant offensive in a northwestern tribal area has now taken control of 80 percent of a strategic town, as a U.S. drone strike Thursday killed six suspected insurgents.
The armed forces have been waging a long-awaited assault on North Waziristan for the past three and a half weeks to eradicate hideouts militants have used to launch attacks across the restive nuclear-armed country.
The army says it has retaken most of Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan which had been under effective militant control for years.
Journalists including AFP reporters were taken on a rare trip to Miranshah Wednesday to see the aftermath of the operation, which began on June 15 with air strikes and artillery bombardment and continued with nine days of ground assault.
The once-bustling town is now virtually deserted, the rubble of countless bombed-out buildings strewn across the dusty streets.
Apart from soldiers, only dogs and donkeys roam the ruins, picking through the wreckage for scraps of food.
"It's about 80 percent clear from the terrorists but it's still not clear of IEDs - it will take more time for combat engineers to clear the IEDs," General Zafarullah Khan told AFP in Miranshah.
Major General Asim Bajwa, the head of the military's media wing, said that before the onslaught the town become a virtual supermarket for jihadist fighters wanting to equip themselves with guns and explosives.
"This looked like a terrorist economy, a whole chain of things being sold in the city," Bajwa told AFP.
"You could find a shop selling IEDs, another shop selling fuses, and a third selling cords and detonators."
Soldiers showed journalists what they described as a "suicide bomber training centre" complete with explosive vests lined up against the walls.
In all, the army said they had recovered 23 tons of explosive material in Miranshah, including IEDs, mines and rocket-propelled grenades.
Adding to the pressure on militants, two U.S. drones fired four missiles into a compound in Doga Macha Madda Khel, a village close to Datta Khel town, local security officials said.
The village lies 35 kilometers west of Miranshah.
A local security official told AFP that Thursday's drone strike had killed four foreign fighters and two local cadres who had fled Miranshah before the launch of the offensive.
"The compound and a vehicle parked inside were completely destroyed and killed at least six militants," the official told AFP.
Doga Macha Madda lies in difficult, mountainous terrain which the official said the militants had hoped to use as cover.
Another security official in the northwestern city of Peshawar, confirmed the attack and the casualties.
It is the third round of drone strikes to hit northwest Pakistan since the U.S. resumed the campaign following a six-month hiatus.
Washington reportedly suspended its drone programme in December to give Islamabad time to pursue a dialogue process with the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) aimed at ending a seven-year insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.
But a spectacular, bloody attack on Karachi airport on June 9 that left dozens dead sank the peace efforts and prompted the army offensive.
U.S. drone strikes resumed a few days after the Karachi attack, though Pakistani officials insist they have not given their approval.
The army says it has killed 400 insurgents in the course of the operation, but with media access to the area impossible without military approval it is impossible to verify the number or identity of the dead.
Resistance to the army advance has been scant, leading many to suspect that the majority of militants have fled, undermining the effectiveness of the operation.
The army admits some militant commanders may have escaped but insists that the trove of arms soldiers have seized shows that as well as disrupting the insurgents' command structure, the operation has also taken out the the bulk of their arsenal.