In a long-awaited military operation precipitated by a deadly
insurgent attack on Pakistan's biggest airport a week ago, Pakistan
has deployed troops, artillery and helicopter gunships to fight
insurgents in North Waziristan.
The Taliban and their ethnic Uzbek allies holed up in North
Waziristan have both claimed responsibility for the June 8
commando-style attack on Karachi airport, which was seen as a
strategic turning point in how Pakistan tackles the insurgency. The
army said combat aircraft destroyed six hideouts in the Shawal
sector of North Waziristan, home to some of Pakistan's most feared
militants and al Qaeda commanders, early on Monday.
"In these precise strikes 27 terrorists were killed. There is no
(civilian) population in the area," it said in a statement.
"(The) operation in North Waziristan Agency is progressing as per
plan. ... North Waziristan Agency has been isolated by deploying
troops along its border with neighboring agencies and FATA
(Federally Administrative Tribal Areas) regions to block any move of
terrorists in and out of the Agency."
It said troops had cordoned off all militant bases, including the
town of Mirali where many ethnic Uzbek and other foreign fighters
are based, and the regional capital of Miranshah.
The Taliban appear determined to fight back. In the first attack
since the start of the operation, at least five Pakistani soldiers
were killed on Monday when a roadside bomb hit an army convoy just
north of Miranshah.
"It was an improvised explosive device," said an intelligence
The all-night attack on Karachi airport all but destroyed prospects
for peace talks with the Taliban militants, who are fighting to
topple the government and impose a strict Sharia-based theocracy in
the nuclear-armed nation.
Public opinion appears to have swung in favor of a military
operation after the Karachi attack, even though such a response in
North Waziristan means a higher risk of revenge attacks by the
Taliban outside the tribal region.
"Operation at last!" The Nation daily said in a front-page headline.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has long insisted that he could bring
insurgents to the negotiating table but the start of the offensive
is seen as a victory for hawks in the army who have long called for
tough military action.
The United States, in the process of withdrawing troops from
neighboring Afghanistan, also wants Pakistan to do more to crush the
insurgency and eliminate al Qaeda hideouts tucked away in the remote
mountains straddling the frontier.
OPERATION "PROPHET'S SWORD"
The army imposed an all-day curfew in North Waziristan as the
operation got under way and turned off mobile phone services to
undermine the insurgency and restrict people's movements.
Independent confirmation of the events or other details were not
available immediately from a region where journalists are not
allowed to operate freely. Expecting an escalation of violence,
two-thirds of families have fled from the ethnic Pashtun region,
residents said, many heading for the Gorbaz district of
Afghanistan's Khost province.
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Mohammad Akbar Zadran, Gorbaz district chief, told Reuters nearly a
thousand families, or around 10,000 people, have now entered into
Gorbaz district, and the number was growing.
"We have packed up everything and are ready to leave as soon as the
curfew is lifted," said Ethasham Khan, a resident of Miranshah,
where the usually bustling streets were empty.
The curfew will be relaxed in the next couple of days to allow
residents to leave the area, a security official said.
Tellingly, the Pakistani military's operation against the Islamist
militants in North Waziristan is called Zarb-e-Azb in Urdu, or
"Strike of the Prophet's Sword". For now, ground troops - numbering
some 80,000 in North Waziristan, according to military sources -
have not been involved in direct military action, leaving F-16
combat jets to lead the offensive with air strikes.
It was also unclear how long officials expect the operation to last
in a region of forbidding mountainous terrain that has never been
subdued by any government.
Separately on Monday, Omar Jillani, an intelligence official who
police said is the nephew of Pakistan's powerful chief justice, was
kidnapped in the eastern city of Multan by suspected Taliban gunmen,
Security is visibly tighter in the capital, Islamabad, as well, with
street patrols by paramilitary Rangers and police. In Lahore, the
cultural capital, police have added checkpoints.
Islamabad's central Kohsar market, a shopping and dining spot for
foreigners and rich Pakistanis, was largely deserted as the
operation got underway on Sunday afternoon.
The Pakistani Taliban are allied with Afghan insurgents of the same
name but operate as a separate entity, uniting dozens of smaller
jihadist groups based in the tribal areas.
(Additional reporting by Asim Tanveer in MULTAN, Elyas Wahdat in
KHOST, Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing
by Jeremy Laurence)
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