MIRANSHAH: Pakistan eased a curfew in a tribal area Wednesday to allow civilians to flee a major offensive against the Taliban, signalling a likely escalation in the campaign as the US hit the militants with drone strikes.
The military has deployed troops, tanks and jets in North Waziristan, on the border with Afghanistan, in a long-awaited crackdown on the Taliban and other militants in the tribal area.
Adding to the pressure on the insurgents, two US drone strikes hit compounds in the area early on Wednesday.
Tens of thousands of people have already fled the operation, which the military says has killed more than 200 militants, and a fresh exodus is under way.
More than 1,000 vehicles arrived Wednesday in the town of Bannu, just across the border in neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a traditional haven for those fleeing violence in restive North Waziristan.
An AFP reporter in Bannu saw around 3,000 vehicles leaving to retrieve people from Mir Ali, one of towns where the curfew has been eased. Registration points and camps have been set up to deal with the influx of people, officials said.
The decision to allow more civilians to leave North Waziristan points to a new, more intense phase of the anti-militant drive, in which ground forces will play a greater role. A senior security official told AFP the curfew was lifted to let people flee ahead of a more concerted ground operation.
“Miranshah and Mir Ali have already been cordoned off. Ground troops will move in after civilians move to safe places,” the official said. “First ground troops will enter in major towns and will then move towards the suburban areas,” after strengthening their positions.
“We will then go to the villages and to the mountains,” he added, saying the operation would continue until every militant had been eliminated. A second security official in the northwest confirmed the details. At least five suspected militants were killed in two separate US drone missile strikes in North Waziristan, according to local officials. Strikes in the tribal area a week ago ended a nearly six-month hiatus in Washington’s controversial campaign against militants in Pakistan. Coming just days before the launch of the military operation, they also triggered talk of collaboration between the US and Pakistan. Amir Rana, the director of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies think-tank, said he believed the latest strikes were a further indication of cooperation.
“What level (was the cooperation) and did Pakistan request it for specific target? That has to be seen,” Rana told AFP. “So far the drone strikes are going on in the same area where the military is launching its operation, so we can see there is coordination.”
The government has routinely condemned drone strikes as a violation of sovereignty, and did so again last week - though leaked documents have shown deep cooperation on them with the US in the past.
Many of the Waziristan residents streamed into Bannu carrying possessions with them - quilts, buckets, mats, water coolers, even livestock and family pets. One family even brought three parrots in a cage.
As they left North Waziristan and entered Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, people were issued with ration packs containing biscuits, tea, sugar and milk. Thousands of people have also fled across the border into the Gorbaz district of Afghanistan’s Khost province, according to local officials there, and are being given food and aid.
ISLAMABAD/MULTAN/ RAHIM YAR KHAN: Shifting of people from the Katcha area of Sindh to safer places ...