Pakistan readies for new assault on Bin Laden lair

Suicide bombers show their resilience with daring attack on UN offices in Islamabad as 28,000 troops mass for imminent strike in the mountains of South Waziristan

IN WHAT is likely to be its sternest challenge yet, Pakistan's military is poised to launch a major offensive in the coming days against militants in the remote mountainous terrain of South Waziristan, long rumoured to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden.

After months of preparation that has involved massing 28,000 troops near the tribal area on the Afghan border, and after weeks of air strikes designed to soften up militant positions, senior military sources in Islamabad told The Independent that the long-awaited operation was imminent. The US has also increased drone strikes in the region to target key figures.

The operation to take on the 10,000-strong Mehsud network, formerly headed by Baitullah Mehsud, comes amid heavy pressure on Pakistan from Washington to continue its fight against militants, many of whom are involved in cross-border attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.

On the weekend, Pentagon officials who have been monitoring the plans to launch the operation suggested that preparations were complete: "We would assess that they have plenty of force to do the job right now," said one official, who declined to be identified.

Confirmation of Pakistan's readiness emerged as militants yesterday underscored their enduring ability to strike at high-profile targets when a suicide bomber killed five people and injured several others in an attack on a UN office in Islamabad. Witnesses said the bomber entered the offices of the World Food Programme (WFP) and set off the bomb, triggering chaos.

"There was a loud blast, a flash of light, and the windows shattered," said Dominique Frankefourt, the WFP's deputy country director. "I was on the first floor of the two-storey building. I told everyone to get out as quickly as possible. But when I came down to the ground floor, there were people lying on the floor who could not move."

Officials said that such attacks are likely to increase in the weeks ahead if the operation in South Waziristan proceeds as anticipated.

Previous operations this year to drive the Taliban from the Swat valley and nearby areas resulted in a series of "revenge" attacks, many of them launched by the Mehsud network. The Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, told Pakistan's parliament yesterday that "we should expect a few more" such attacks in the days ahead.

A major operation in South Waziristan would also probably lead to fresh problems for aid agencies if large numbers of people flee the region, as happened earlier this year when more than two million people left their homes in Swat. Hundreds of thousands of those who fled have yet to return. UN officials would not comment on whether they believed a military operation was imminent but admitted that some preparations had been made. The UN said last week that 80,000 people had already left the South Waziristan area since June and estimated that up to 170,000 could follow if the operation goes ahead.

Confronted by a faltering operation in Afghanistan and amid mounting doubt about its ability to achieve a military victory there, the assault on South Waziristan is considered critically important by the US administration of President Barack Obama.

Washington wishes to see Islamabad take on militants responsible for cross-border attacks on US and Nato troops and prevent Pakistan from being a safe haven for such fighters.

For a long time, the US has complained that while Pakistan – which has received billions of dollars in military aid since 11 September 2001 – was prepared to target militants responsible for attacks inside the country, it was less willing to pursue those whose primary battlefields were inside Afghanistan. Indeed, it is an open secret that elements within Pakistan still consider such militants to be strategic assets.

Such concerns will not have been eased by the news that the Pakistan army has renewed a non-aggression pact with Maulvi Nazir, a Taliban leader who earlier this year said he was joining forces with Baitullah Mehsud and Hafiz Gul Bahadur to target Western forces across the border and support the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.

"You have a lot of guys in South Waziristan that Pakistan treats as assets," said Christine Fair, an analyst with the Washington-based Rand Corporation. "Maulvi Nazir is an enemy of the US but he is most certainly an asset of Pakistan."

Baitullah Mehsud was assassinated in a CIA-operated drone strike at the beginning of August. The South Waziristan operation will focus on what remains of his network.

Hakimullah Mehsud, the new leader of the Pakistan Taliban, reportedly appeared over the weekend alongside other militant leaders to vow revenge for Baitullah Mehsud's killing, ending speculation that he too had been killed.

Pakistan has been reluctant to return to South Waziristan after humiliating retreats in earlier operations. Ensuing peace deals allowed the militants to regroup and consolidate their grip on the historically inhospitable territory that was a headache for British commanders in colonial times.

The difficulties are compounded by the presence of well-trained foreign fighters, notably al-Qa'ida-affiliated Arabs and central Asians. Punjabi sectarian militants who fought in the Swat valley have also moved into the region.

Pakistan's army is hampered by a lack of counter-insurgency training and an operation in South Waziristan, with winter snows not far away, would probably lead to more army casualties than those suffered in Swat.

World's most wanted: Could he be hiding in Waziristan?

It has been almost eight years since the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden – the man George Bush once famously said he wanted "dead or alive" – were known with any certainty.

But ever since the al-Qa'ida leader slipped out of the cave complex at Tora Bora and walked across the border into Pakistan in December 2001, the tribal areas of South and North Waziristan have been identified as possible hiding places for him. He has many allies in the area, such as the father-and-son Haqqani network based in North Waziristan. And the strict Pashtun code of hospitality would oblige local tribal leaders to provide him with shelter. Many experts believe Bin Laden has long been supplanted as the day-to-day head of the terror network that he unleashed. However, he still represents an inspirational figure to many jihadis, and his capture would be a major symbolic boost for the West. That, of course, is assuming that Bin Laden is still alive. Many believe he is long dead.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all