Pakistan steps-up military operation to oust Taliban militants from north Waziristan


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The Independent Online

Pakistan fighter jets have carried out a fresh attack on militant targets in the tribal area of North Waziristan – a day after the military said it was launching what may be its most significant operation for many years. Meanwhile, five soldiers were killed in what appeared to be a retaliatory bomb attack.

The military reported that the F-16 jets planes hit targets in the Shawal area, said to be home to some of the most unyielding Taliban and al-Qa’ida fighters. The military claimed up to 27 suspected militants were killed, though it was not possible to confirm this independently.

The strikes came a day after Pakistan’s military said it was launching a major operation - Zarb-e-Azb, or Strike of the Prophet’s Sword - to try and drive out militants from a remote area located on the border with Afghanistan.

The army said it had deployed 80,000 soldiers, artillery and helicopter gunships and that major towns such as Mir Ali and Miranshah were surrounded by troops. Seven militants were killed trying to escape Mir Ali, it said.

“I think this is extremely significant. It’s the final battle, if you like,” said Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based analyst and former army general. “The Taliban and other militants have become so powerful. They were able to launch the attack on Karachi airport, which was extremely damaging for Pakistan’s image.”

As the military launched its second consecutive day of strikes, the authorities said they were preparing facilities to help civilians fleeing from the area. The army also said it was increasing security in cities across the country to try and counter any revenge attacks by militants. Five solders were reportedly killed by a bomb attack in North Waziristan.

The military imposed an all-day curfew in North Waziristan and turned off mobile phone services in what it said was a move to undermine the insurgency and restrict people’s movements. The curfew will be relaxed in the next couple of days to allow residents to leave the area.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was elected last year having said he would try to broker a ceasefire with the Taliban as part of a broader regional settlement. His government held several rounds of talks with representatives appointed by the militants but they made little progress.

The US, a major provider of military and humanitarian aid to Pakistan, has long called for operations against militants in Pakistan, many of whom over the years have crossed the border into Afghanistan and launched strikes against Western troops.

But the Pakistan military has often appeared reluctant to do so. Many analysts believe senior military officers still consider some of the militant factions – a number of which date back to the days of covert, Western-orchestrated operations against Soviet troops in Afghanistan – to be useful proxy forces.

The army’s public relations department said in a statement that more than 140 militants had been killed since the operation started on Sunday. It claimed many of those killed were Uzbek citizens and members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant outfit.

The strikes in North Waziristan come a week after militants launched a five hour assault on Karachi airport, an attack that left 36 people dead, including the 10 Taliban gunmen who stormed the premises.

In a statement issued on Monday, the Taliban warned foreign companies operating in Pakistan that they could not be held accountable for their safety. It also said it was blaming Mr Sharif for the operation in the tribal area.

“We warn all foreign investors, airlines and multi-national corporations that they should immediately suspend their ongoing matters with Pakistan and prepare to leave Pakistan, otherwise they will be responsible for their own loss,” said spokesman Shahidullah Shahid.

Mr Masood, the analyst, said he believed the initial push to kill and drive out the militants from North Waziristan would last up to three weeks. He said there would then need to be “holding” operations.