Pakistan orders army to target Taliban leader after bombing

US has $5m bounty on head of militant dubbed 'root cause of all evils'

Baitullah Mehsud, a one time body-builder who has emerged as the deadliest and most feared militant leader in Pakistan, is the focus of a major new military operation in the mountainous wilds of Waziristan - also believed to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden.

Officials say the army is set to launch a "fully fledged" operation against the Taliban leader in what represents a dramatic expansion of an ongoing effort against militants who have seized parts of the country and set in place a wave of suicide attacks. Already the army has been carrying out softening up operations in areas neighbouring Waziristan; in the coming days it is anticipated it will announce the main assault is underway.

"We have ordered all the law enforcing agencies to start a full-fledged operation against Baitullah Mehsud and his followers," said Owais Ghani, the Governor of the North West Frontier Province, who controls the seven semi-autonomous tribal agencies along the Afghan border. Denouncing Mr Mehsud as "the root cause of all evils," Mr Ghani said his followers were "the people who are responsible for all of the bombing, terrorism, (and) killing of innocent people."

The decision to expand the operation into Waziristan and to target Mr Mehsud is no doubt partly influenced by the military's success in the Swat valley, where the army claims it has killed over 1,500 militants as it works to drive the Taliban from areas barely 60 miles from Islamabad. But there are clear indications the operation is being readied in coordination with Washington, which in March announced a $5m reward for information leading to the "key al-Qa'ida facilitator's" arrest.

On Sunday, a US pilotless drone killed five suspected militants near Makeen, in South Waziristan, Mr Mehsud's hometown. The previous day, the Pakistani air force pounded the same area and claimed to have killed 30 militants. It is understood that US forces will seek to increase their presence on the Afghanistan side of the border and, coordinating from Islamabad, put pressure from different sides - a tactic that was attempted last year in the Bajaur tribal region.

"There is definitely synergy and close cooperation taking place. They are trying to squeeze the militants from both sides," said Talat Masood, a former general turned analyst. "It's like Bajaur but I think it will be even more serious. This is a tough nut to crack."

Though only aged in his mid-30s, Mr Mehsud, who in 2007 was named as the leader of a loose confederation of militant groups known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). has emerged as the most powerful militant leader in Pakistan and the man whose followers are apparently behind the current wave of suicide bombings being carried out in apparent revenge for the army Swat operation. Among his allies are the Swat-based Taliban led by Maulana Fazlullah. Many of the vicious tactics deployed by the militants in Swat - including beheadings, school burnings and the targeted killing of tribal elders - were first introduced by Mr Mehsud. There is also evidence of links between his followers and militants in the Punjab.

"We continue to fight until the last Taliban, militant, enemy of Pakistan is flushed out of Pakistan," said Rehman Malik, head of the interior ministry.

In addition to the Pakistan military and US drones, Mr Mehsud faces the threat from tribal leaders in his area. Qari Zainuddin, a militant leader from within the same tribe, has increasingly spoken out against him. Now backed by Pakistan's security services, Mr Zainuddin is prepared to take the fight to his fellow clansmen. "In the past, people like Zainuddin did not have the army's protection, so they couldn't have much impact," said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a military analyst at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

But the operation against Mr Mehsud will be far from easy and is expected to be considerably tougher than the current operation in Swat and several surrounding areas.

The terrain favours hardened guerillas familiar with the area. On three previous occasions - in 2004, 2005 and 2008 - the army has fought, only to then sign truces with Mr Mehsud. On each occasion, he has used the breathing space to reorganise his forces, estimated to total anywhere up to 20,000 fighters.