ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's military said on Wednesday it had killed more than 900 militants and lost 82 soldiers since the start of a major operation against the Taleban in the tribal north-west in June.
The military began a long-awaited push to clear insurgent bases from North Waziristan district, on the Afghan border, after a bloody attack on Karachi airport finally sank stuttering peace talks with the rebels.
Air strikes, artillery, mortars and ground troops have all been used to retake territory in North Waziristan, which had become a haven for fighters with Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) and other terror outfits.
The military said the major towns of Miranshah and Mir Ali had now been cleared of insurgents, along with a strategically important 90km road through North Waziristan.
"Since the start of the operation, 910 terrorists have been killed. 82 soldiers have embraced shahadat (martyrdom) in the entire country while fighting against terrorism and 269 were injured," the military said in a statement.
The conflict zone is off-limits to journalists, so there is no way to independently verify the number and identity of those killed. The Taleban later gave a sharply lower figure for the number of insurgents killed.
The military toll includes 42 militants killed outside of the tribal areas in more than 2,000 of what the military called "intelligence-led coordinated operations" to prevent reprisal terror attacks elsewhere in the country.
The latest figures represent a significant increase on an AFP tally based on regular operational updates from the military, which recorded 632 militant deaths up to Aug 30 and 29 soldiers.
A security official said the discrepancy had arisen because intense ground operations around Mir Ali in recent weeks have produced a high number of casualties.
"So far, security forces have cleared the major towns of Miranshah, Mirali, Datta Khel, Boya and Degan in North Waziristan, which were considered strongholds of terrorists," the military statement said.
The army statement gave no details of civilian casualties, but reports from residents fleeing the fighting have indicated numerous civilians have been killed.
After one set of air strikes in Shawal Valley in July, multiple accounts by residents said 37 civilians were killed, including 20 women and 10 children.
The military has said civilians were given plenty of warning to leave conflict areas and accused militants of using them as "human shields". The operation is ongoing.
- Taleban dispute figures - =========================== The umbrella Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) later issued a statement accusing the army of grossly exaggerating its claims and killing mostly civilians.
"Fact is that in this war only 25 to 30 of our companions have embraced (martyrdom); on the other hand during bombardment more than five dozen civilians have embraced (martyrdom)," the statement, signed by spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan and written in English said.
"It is worth mentioning that before the operation started Mujahideen had already shifted their bomb factories and training centres into safe places," it added.
Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas on the Afghan border have for years been a hideout for Islamist militants of all stripes - including Al-Qaeda and the home-grown TTP as well as foreign fighters such as Uzbeks and Uighurs.
Washington pressed Islamabad for years to take action to wipe out sanctuaries in North Waziristan, which militants have used to launch attacks on Nato forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.
There have been fears that many top militants also fled, including fighters from the feared Haqqani network which is blamed for numerous bloody attacks in Afghanistan.