Pakistan's military says it has launched a ground offensive in the militant stronghold of North Waziristan after two weeks of air strikes and bombardments. More than 450,000 people have fled their homes in anticipation of the operation.
In a statement issued today, the armed forces said it had carried out an initial operation in the city of Miranshah, capital of the tribal area that borders Afghanistan.
“After the evacuation of all the civil population, a ground operation commenced in and around Miranshah early morning today,” said the statement. “A house to house search of Miranshah town is being carried out by infantry troops and the special service group.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected last summer following a campaign during which he proposed peace talks with the Taliban as part of a broader, regional initiative. His government held several meetings with representatives of the main militant faction but they failed to make much progress.
On 15 June, the armed forces began a series of airstrikes against supposed militant positions in North Waziristan. They followed a deadly, embarrassing attack on Karachi airport by militants which left more than 30 people dead and raised more questions about the utility of the government’s policy.
The US and other western countries have long pushed the Pakistan military to confront Taliban and al-Qa’ida militants who, in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, have established a stronghold in the partly autonomous tribal areas.
But at least some elements with the military and intelligence establishment, and indeed within the broader Pakistan state, consider some militant groups to be a useful proxy force, especially in relation to the country’s strategic relationship with Afghanistan.
Since the air operation began, 376 militants have been killed and a further 19 have surrendered, the military said. It said many of those killed were ethnic Uzbeks or Chinese Uighurs. A total of 17 Pakistani soldiers have been killed. It is all but impossible to confirm the claims of the military given that the media only has very limited access to the area where the operation is taking place.
Mohammad Yasin, a resident of Qutabkhel village, close to Miranshah, was among a handful of residents who have stayed on, despite the operation. He said that today was the first time he had seen ground troops leave their heavily guarded base since the operation began.
“Before leaving the army camp, the security forces targeted adjoining villages and Miranshah bazaar through artillery and tanks and then two helicopters were seen shelling the same area where the troops later conducted house-to-house searches,” he told the Reuters news agency.