MIRANSHAH/ISLAMABAD – Pakistani fighter jets pounded North Waziristan on Monday, a day after the army announced the start of a full-scale military operation to flush insurgents out of the tribal areas.
In a long-awaited military operation precipitated by a deadly attack on the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi a week ago, Pakistan has deployed troops, artillery and gunship helicopters to fight insurgents in North Waziristan.
Both Taliban and their allies have claimed responsibility for the June 8 commando-style attack on the Jinnah Airport. The army said combat aircraft destroyed six hideouts in the Shawal sector of North Waziristan, home to some of the most feared militants and al Qaeda commanders, early on Monday.
“In these precise strikes, 27 terrorists were killed. There is no (civilian) population in the area,” it said in a statement. “(The) operation in North Waziristan Agency is progressing as per plan... North Waziristan Agency has been isolated by deploying troops along its border with neighbouring agencies and FATA (Federally Administrative Tribal Areas) regions to block any move of terrorists in and out of the Agency.”
It said troops had cordoned off all militant bases, including the town of Mirali where many ethnic Uzbek and other foreign fighters are based, and the regional capital of Miranshah. The Taliban appear determined to fight back. In the first attack since the start of the operation, at least six soldiers were killed on Monday when a roadside bomb hit an army convoy just north of Miranshah, the army said.
The all-night attack on Karachi airport all but destroyed prospects for peace talks with the Taliban militants. Public opinion appears to have swung in favour of a military operation after the Karachi attack, even though such a response in North Waziristan means a higher risk of revenge attacks by the Taliban outside the tribal region.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has long insisted that he could bring insurgents to the negotiating table but the start of the offensive is seen as a victory for hawks in the army who have long called for tough military action. The United States, in the process of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, also wants Pakistan to do more to crush the insurgency and eliminate al Qaeda hideouts tucked away in the remote mountains straddling the frontier.
The army imposed an all-day curfew in North Waziristan as the operation got under way and turned off mobile phone services to undermine the insurgency and restrict people's movements. Independent confirmation of the events or other details was not available immediately from a region where journalists are not allowed to operate freely. The curfew would be relaxed in the next couple of days to allow residents to leave the area, a security official said.
Tellingly, the military's operation against the militants in North Waziristan is called Zarb-e-Azb in Urdu. For now, ground troops – numbering some 80,000 in North Waziristan, according to military sources – have not been involved in direct military action, leaving F-16 combat jets to lead the offensive with air strikes. It was also unclear how long officials expect the operation to last in a region of forbidding mountainous terrain that has never been subdued by any government.