Taliban militants attacked Pakistani forces and recaptured a strategic town yesterday while two suicide bomb blasts at an Islamic university in the capital killed six people and wounded at least 20, officials said.
The government made an immediate link between the university attack and an offensive against the Taliban, with the Interior Minister Rehman Malik saying "all roads are leading towards South Waziristan".
Fighting for control of the lawless area is a major test of the government's ability to tackle an increasingly brazen insurgency that has seen a string of attacks in various parts of the country.
The army captured the small town of Kotkai on Monday, the birthplace of the Pakistan Taliban chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, on the approach to an insurgent base in South Waziristan, but officials said that militants struck back yesterday to retake it.
The two suicide bomb blasts to hit the International Islamic University in Islamabad were the first since the offensive began. The sprawling university teaches more than 12,000 students, nearly half of them female and including hundreds of foreigners, focusing on education that incorporates Islam in modern times.
"Those who attacked the university have shown that they are neither friends of Islam nor of Pakistan," Mr Malik said. "Those carrying out this aggression are just testing the nerves of our nation."
Remote and rugged South Waziristan, with its mountains and patchy forests cut through by dry creeks and ravines, is a global hub for militants, and the offensive is being closely followed by the US and other powers embroiled in Afghanistan. An intelligence official said jets bombed Taliban positions in and around Kotkai after the militant counterattack.
The town, also the home town of Qari Hussain Mehsud, a senior Taliban commander known as "the mentor of suicide bombers", is a gateway to a militant stronghold at Sararogha.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said he was encouraged by the offensive but it was too early to gauge the impact. General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in the region, held talks with Pakistani military and government officials on Monday.
Military officials and analysts said forces had faced less resistance than expected, but heavy fighting was likely when soldiers approach militant sanctuaries in the forest-covered mountains. About 28,000 soldiers are battling an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban. The army has launched brief offensives in South Waziristan before, the first in in 2004 when it suffered heavy casualties before striking a peace pact.
This time, however, analysts say the army, the government and the general public all agree the time has come to deal with the Pakistani Taliban.
"I'm obviously encouraged by the Pakistani operations," Mr Gates said. "And so we obviously are very supportive of what the Pakistanis are doing. But it's very early yet."