, PESHAWAR, Oct 17 – Pakistani troops backed by warplanes on Saturday launched a major operation against the Taliban in South Waziristan, sparking deadly clashes with heavily-armed fighters, officials said.
The mountain district is part of a tribal belt on the Afghan border that US officials call the most dangerous place in the world and is home to thousands of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked fighters believed to be plotting attacks.
Air strikes and heavy artillery pounded Taliban bases as troops advanced north, west and east after months spent planning an assault that was expected to encounter heavy resistance on terrain well suited to the guerrillas.
"The army has launched an operation after receiving orders from the government. The operation was launched early in the morning. Both air and ground troops are taking part," Major General Athar Abbas told AFP.
Pakistan vowed to root out militants it branded a threat to the country’s sovereignty after a spike in a two-year Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked campaign of attacks that has made the country a frontline in the US-led war on terror.
At least 90,000 civilians have fled South Waziristan, home to around 600,000 people, since August in order to escape a feared military onslaught.
Long-distance artillery pounded rebel positions as the vanguard of troops engaged in heavy clashes in mountainous forest at 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 killed during clashes as troops thrust north towards the Mehsud stronghold of Makeen, east towards Kotkai, Spinkai Raghzai, and west towards Kunigaram, Saam and Baddar, security 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 the initial objective was to establish footholds with three divisions of the military, paramilitary and police eventually mobilised, numbering up to 60,000 troops.
"The operation has been launched this morning. Forces are moving inside Mehsud territory," he told AFP.
"It will be a very swift operation bearing in mind the weather conditions…. We will try to complete it before snowfall," he added.
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.
Pakistan’s military has said Central Asian militants, mainly Uzbeks, as well as Arabs, north Africans and even some Europeans are also in the area.
The troop movement was accompanied by an indefinite curfew slapped on parts of South Waziristan in the district of Wana, the main town in the vast and lawless region, as well as in Shakai and Tiarza, officials said.
"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.
The prime minister chaired crisis talks of main political leaders late Friday to listen to a briefing from army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
"In the given circumstances, the national consensus is reaffirmed to establish and maintain the writ of the state to weed out these elements," said the prime minister’s office.
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 many say lack necessary military hardware and counter-insurgency expertise.
One US official said the United States was "doing everything in our power" to help Pakistan improve its counter-insurgency capabilities with military assistance to the nuclear-armed Muslim country "on a war-plan footing".
Hundreds of night-vision goggles, radios and thousands of protective vests were provided in July alone, with overall military assistance amounting to 6.85 billion dollars since 2001, the embassy official said.
In Pakistan’s tribal region of Mohmand, nine militants and a soldier were killed following a pre-dawn attack on a checkpoint, the paramilitary said.