PESHAWAR - At least 12 Taliban militants were killed and seven soldiers martyred as the military made a new push into the militants’ last major stronghold in North Waziristan Agency, near the border with Afghanistan.

Twelve terrorists and four soldiers were killed in clashes that took place at Ghazezai, northeast of Datta Khel, in Shwaal Valley, ISPR said in a statement on Sunday.

Earlier in the morning a roadside planted-bomb hit a security forces vehicle at Raghzai village in the same area, killing three soldiers who were conducting a search operation there, according to media reports.

The military began a major offensive in North Waziristan last summer to drive out Taliban and other extremist militants who launch attacks on government and civilian targets. The army is meeting fierce resistance as it moves further into the lower-lying areas of the Shawal Valley, military officials said.

Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif visited troops on Friday and said the initial phase around the surrounding peaks of the Shawal Valley was successful and it was now time to begin a final push into the lower areas. “We will not stop unless we achieve our end objective of a terror-free Pakistan,” he said.

Militants ambushed a military convoy on Saturday in the valley’s Pir Ghr area, killing two soldiers and wounding three others, intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with spokesman Azam Tariq saying five soldiers were killed.

The intelligence officials added that troops moving from both the North and South Waziristan sides into the Shawal Valley were encountering tough resistance from militants.

The heavily forested ravines in the area are dotted with Taliban hideouts and the area is a key smuggling route into neighbouring Afghanistan.

Two other attacks in the northwest killed five more soldiers outside the Shawal Valley. The first, a remote-controlled bomb attack on army vehicles in North Waziristan, killed three and injured six. A second bomb attack on a military vehicle in South Waziristan killed two others, the military officials said.

The Pakistani Taliban had controlled almost all of the north-western region of North Waziristan before troops launched their offensive last year. Many militants have fled to other parts of Pakistan, and some into Afghanistan, complicating the US-backed Kabul government’s fight against its own Taliban insurgency.

In Sunday’s clashes in Ghaziza area of Datta Khel town, some 20 kilometres east of Miranshah - the main town in the North Waziristan, fleeing terrorists left behind three of their 12 dead bodies. The ISPR named martyred soldiers as Saeed-ur-Rehman, Muhammad Saleem and fazli Amin. It said that five others Zaheer, Iqbal, Ramzan, Saud Ahmad and Ikram sustained injuries, and they taken to CMH Bannu. Following the clashes, security forces launched a search operation in the area.

The conflict zone is remote and off-limits to journalists making it difficult to verify the army’s claims, including the number and identity of those killed. The military says the year-long counter-militancy campaign in Waziristan and surrounding areas has so far killed nearly 3,000 insurgents while more than 350 troops also died.

Army commanders say the offensive is now in its final stages and is trying to eliminate the remaining few militant pockets. But independent verification of the official claims is difficult to ascertain. Army officials acknowledge that troops are meeting fierce resistance in the Shawal Valley where fugitive commanders and fighters of the Afghan Taliban until recently were entrenched and organising cross-border attacks.

In a related development, three rockets were fired from the Afghan side of the border on the security forces camp in North Waziristan. The rockets fell near the camp but there was no loss of life.