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Taliban Ambush Pakistani Army Convoy

A Pakistani army slodier escorts a suspected Taliban militant in May
WANA, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Taliban militants ambushed a Pakistani military convoy near the Afghan border on June 28 killing six soldiers, security officials said, as the army prepared an assault on Pakistan's Taliban chief.

The military, near the end of an offensive in the northwestern Swat Valley after two months of fighting, is preparing to launch a new drive in South Waziristan, where Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud is based.

Pakistan's campaign against the Taliban has won the praise of close ally the United States, which needs Pakistan to go after the militants as it tries to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize Afghanistan.

The top U.S. commander for the region, General David Petraeus, arrived for talks with Pakistani leaders, the U.S. embassy said. Media said he met army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.

The Taliban have responded to the offensive with bombings in towns and cities and attacks on the military across the north.

Militants firing rocket-propelled grenades ambushed the military convoy in North Waziristan, another militant stronghold on the Afghan border, intelligence agency officials said.

"They fired rockets damaging several vehicles and we have reports of the death of six soldiers," said one official, who declined to be identified. Twelve men were wounded, he said.

Military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas confirmed the ambush and some casualties but said he did not have a figure.

Earlier on June 28, government aircraft bombed two Taliban compounds in a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan, killing eight militants, intelligence officials in the region said.

The air strikes came after militants attacked an army and a paramilitary camp east of Wana on Saturday, killing two soldiers and wounding four, said a government official in South Waziristan's main town of Wana.

Civilians Flee

The fragile civilian government has the support of most political parties and members of the public for the offensive but about 10,000 supporters of an Islamist party rallied in the city of Karachi chanting "Go America, Go!"

The government has said Mehsud, who carries a $5 million U.S. reward on his head, and his force of thousands of followers must be defeated. It posted a reward of 50 million rupees ($615,000) for Mehsud on June 28 and smaller rewards for 10 of his top men.

Mehsud, who security analysts say has become increasingly close to al Qaeda, has been accused of a string of attacks in Pakistani towns and cities including the December 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Mehsud is allied with Afghan Taliban fighters but they concentrate on attacking U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and are not the focus of the Pakistani offensive.

With an increase in military attacks on Mehsud in South Waziristan, about 45,000 people have fled from the area, according to military estimates.

Nearly 2 million people have fled from fighting in Swat and other parts of the northwest since late last year and aid groups are struggling for funds to help them.

Taliban leaders in Swat were alive and would fight on, a spokesman for the militants said.

"We retreated according to our plan. We'll carry out guerrilla attacks," the spokesman, Muslim Khan, said by telephone. "It's a long battle."