Pakistan starts huge offensive against Taliban

After months of air strikes to 'soften up' key targets, army moves against militants

The Pakistan army's long-awaited ground offensive in South Waziristan was under way last night, as up to 30,000 troops began moving into the Taliban stronghold.

After months of airstrikes to soften up key targets, witnesses said soldiers began the fourth attempt to crush militants in the tribal borderlands since 2001.

Initial reports claimed 11 insurgents had been killed. One soldier died when a roadside bomb hit a military convoy, and four were killed and 12 others wounded in firefights around the region.

The move to confront the Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters coincides with intense political pressure from the US to crush militants responsible for carrying out cross-border attacks on American troops in Afghanistan. It also follows two weeks of rising militant violence on army and police across Pakistan, which left at least 175 people dead and the whole country shaken.

The focus of the military's operation is Taliban fighters previously led by Baitullah Mehsud, killed in a US drone strike in August. His fighters now operate under a former lieutenant, Hakimullah Mehsud, who marked his emergence as leader with a slew of strikes and suicide attacks on the state and the military establishment.

An eyewitness told Associated Press that people in Makeen, his South Waziristan town, heard sounds of battle as the troops moved in, but were unable to leave because of a curfew. "We heard planes and helicopters early Saturday. Then blasts. We are also hearing gunshots and it seems the army is exchanging fire with Taliban," he said.

A news blackout meant precise details of the military operation were unavailable, but reports suggest the assault involved a three-pronged strike in and around Wana, the regional headquarters under the control of Mehsud loyalists. The area had been pounded by fighter jets as troops moved in around dawn.

As the operation began, humanitarian groups confirmed that thousands of people had already fled the area. They also warned of the potential of a fresh flood of refugees.

Amnesty said between 90,000 and 150,000 people had left the area since July, when the Pakistani military began its long-range artillery and aerial bombardment. "The Pakistani government has to ensure the well-being of its own citizens, even when it's fighting against a group like the Pakistani Taliban. There is no excuse for not complying with the laws of war," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty's Asia Pacific director.

Major-General Athar Abbas of the Pakistan army said the Mehsud fighters may total 10,000, with a further 1,500 al-Qa'ida-linked foreign fighters.

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