Army launches ground offensive on Taliban tribal stronghold

Pakistani officials say the army has fought fierce battles with heavily armed Taliban fighters after it launched a long-awaited ground offensive in the tribal regions of South Waziristan near the Afghan border.


AFP - Pakistani ground troops backed by warplanes launched a major operation against Taliban in South Waziristan where they were locked in clashes with well-armed fighters, officials said Saturday.

The mountain district is part of the tribal belt on the Afghan border that US officials call the most dangerous place in the world and a stronghold for Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone attack.

Aircraft bombed Taliban bases as troops advanced north, west and east out of garrisons ahead of a long-planned final ground assault that had been expected to encounter heavy resistance on terrain well suited to the guerrillas.

Pakistan vowed to root out militants branded a threat to sovereignty after a spike in a two-year Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked campaign of attacks cementing Pakistan's position on the frontline of the US-led "war on terror".

Long-distance artillery pounded rebel positions as the vanguard of troops fought heavy clashes in Sharwangi and Spinkai Raghzai, a local administration official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"They are using heavy weapons" against troops, he told AFP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. A military official confirmed that troops had run into resistance.

Four soldiers were wounded during clashes as troops thrust north towards the Mehsud stronghold of Makeen, east towards Kotkai, Spinkai Raghzai, and west towards Kunigaram, Saam and Baddar, administration officials said.

Remote-controlled bomb attacks also killed three soldiers -- two in North Waziristan and one in South Waziristan, said security officials.

A senior military official told AFP that the initial objective was to establish footholds, but that three divisions of the military, paramilitary and police would be mobilised, eventually numbering up to 60,000 troops.

"The operation has been launched this morning. Forces are moving inside Mehsud territory," he told AFP.

A formal announcement on the start of the operation was expected by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, security officials said.

There are 10,000 to 12,000 fighters from the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) movement in South Waziristan and up to 25,000 across Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt with a history of fierce independence, experts estimate.

"It will be a very swift operation bearing in mind the weather conditions. Soon there will be a complete change in the weather and maybe snowfall. We will try to complete it before snowfall," said the military official.

The troop movement was accompanied by an indefinite curfew slapped on parts of South Waziristan from 7:00 am in the district of Wana, the main town in the vast and lawless region, as well as in Shakai and Tiarza, officials said.

Authorities earlier this week registered 90,000 people displaced from South Waziristan since August, fleeing their homes fearing a military onslaught.

"Ground and air forces are moving. The objective is to clear all kinds of miscreants from South Waziristan," Tariq Hayat, a senior government official in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt, told AFP, referring to the militants.

"This has been in the works for a long time. It was only a question of timing and the timing was decided. Troops were in place and they moved in."

The prime minister chaired crisis talks of main political leaders late Friday to listen to a briefing from army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.

"The recent upsurge of terror incidents in the country were condemned and it was agreed that these elements pose a serious threat to the sovereignty and integrity of the state," said the prime minister's office.

"In the given circumstances, the national consensus is reaffirmed to establish and maintain the writ of the state to weed out these elements."

On Thursday, gunmen blasted into three security buildings in Lahore, in the country's political heartland, five days after attackers besieged the army headquarters near the capital Islamabad and humiliated the military.

The frequency and sophistication of a string of attacks since October 5 has underscored the weakness of government security forces who Western analysts say lack necessary military hardware and counter-insurgency expertise.

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