The Pakistani army said Sunday it had launched a “comprehensive operation” against militants in the tribal region of North Waziristan, a week after a brazen insurgent attack on the country's busiest airport.
"Our valiant armed forces have been tasked to eliminate these terrorists regardless of hue and colour, along with their sanctuaries," the army said in a statement.
The offensive already looked to have begun earlier Sunday when the military pounded suspected militant hideouts in North Waziristan with a series of airstrikes.
The region, close to the Afghan border, is home to a mix of local and al Qaeda-linked foreign militants including the Taliban and ethnic Uzbek fighters – both of whom have claimed responsibility for the deadly June 8 siege on Karachi airport.
The shocking attack increased pressure on the Pakistani government to tackle the resilient insurgency that has plagued the country for years.
It also all but destroyed prospects of peace talks with the militants, who are fighting to topple the Pakistani government and impose a strict Sharia-based theocracy in the nuclear-armed nation.
Washington has long pushed for Pakistan to launch an operation in North Waziristan, one of the last areas in the country’s northwest where a large-scale operation has not been held against militants.
At least 80 militants killed
There were conflicting reports as to how many militants had been killed in Sunday’s strikes. The military said in a statement that more than 80 militants were killed, although intelligence officials earlier put the toll as high as 100.
“There were confirmed reports of presence of foreign and local terrorists in these hideouts who were linked in planning the Karachi airport attack,” the military said.
The army said ethnic Uzbeks accounted for most of those killed in the latest air assault.
“Fighter jets targeted militant hideouts in the village of Dagan near the Pakistani-Afghan border,” said one source in the regional capital of Miranshah.
“An important Uzbek commander, Abdul Rehman, has been killed in the air strike,” he said, adding that Rehman was directly involved in masterminding the Karachi airport attack.
Military sources said a number of ethnic Uighur militants, who operate alongside Uzbeks and share a similar Turkic language with them, had also been killed.
The official account could not be independently verified and there was no immediate comment from the Taliban.
China believes that Uighur separatists based in Pakistan’s tribal areas are behind an insurgency against Han Chinese in its restive Xinjiang province, although their exact numbers in Pakistan are unknown.
In anticipation of more violence, families have been fleeing North Waziristan into other parts of Pakistan as a climate of fear has gripped the lawless mountainous region.
After the Karachi attack, in which 38 people were killed, US drones conducted the first air strikes in Pakistan since the start of the year, hitting militant positions.
Pakistani air force jets have also been pounding militant hideouts and there has been increased speculation that the army is preparing for a major ground and air offensive in the region.
Pakistani authorities also fear that militants themselves may be fleeing the area too, possibly into neighbouring Afghanistan, making it harder to kill or capture them.
Officials said a curfew had been imposed in the region and the army was setting up more checkpoints to improve security.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-06-15