DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan: Pakistan vowed on Monday to target Taliban leaders and deal a killer blow to the Islamists as it pressed a major offensive Western military chiefs said was key to regional stability.
The army said 78 militants had been killed in the operation which presents the military with its biggest challenge yet in the war against the hardliners who have been blamed for a wave of attacks killing 2,250 people in two years.
But concerns are mounting that the assault in South Waziristan will spark another refugee crisis ahead of heavy snow in a bitterly cold winter.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Pakistan was determined to deliver a “decisive blow” against the Taliban in the tribal district, as troops advanced towards diehard militant bastions along heavily mined roads.
Ground forces have massed on the western, eastern and northwestern flanks of Kotkai, the hometown of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud and key Taliban leader Qari Hussain, readying for an assault.
“The high-level targets are the leadership. We hope to get the leadership,” said Major General Athar Abbas, the army’s chief spokesman.
“The forces have taken over the heights, features around Kotkai. Kotkai is the home town of Qari Hussain, formerly known as the mentor of suicide bombers,” said Abbas, referring to “stiff resistance” at Sherwangi.
Troops could capture Kotkai by Tuesday, a military official told AFP.
The insurgents have mined roads with improvised-explosive devices (IEDs) of the type deployed to devastating effect against NATO and US troops fighting an eight-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the official said.
Hoping to sow division, the military airdropped leaflets urging Mehsud’s own tribe to rise up and fight alongside the army.
“The aim of the army is to provide an opportunity to the Mehsud tribe to live in peace and tranquility,” said the flyers.
The United States has long pressed for military action against Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants, following a prolonged assault in the northwest Swat Valley — considered a less difficult fight than Waziristan.
Gilani urged the international community to provide reconstruction and relief aid at talks with US General David Petraeus and US Senator John Kerry.
Petraeus, overall commander of the US military operation in Afghanistan, said Washington “acknowledges the sacrifices of Pakistan in the war on terror”.
The secretary general of NATO, which has around 67,700 troops in Afghanistan, also expressed “appreciation of the increased efforts… in the border regions” by the Pakistan authorities.
“It is crucial for stability in the whole region that the Pakistani government and military succeed in their endeavours,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. Related article: Factfile on South Waziristan
Pakistan says its offensive is concentrated against up to 10,000 fighters spread across about half of South Waziristan.
Some 25,000 troops are involved in the three-pronged push against militant networks blamed for some of the worst attacks in Pakistan, where a recent spike in assaults has left more than 170 people dead so far this month.
The military said nine soldiers and 78 militants have been killed so far in South Waziristan, part of the anarchic tribal belt on the Afghan border.
It is impossible to corroborate information from within South Waziristan. The military has sealed off exit and entry points, imposed curfews and jammed phone lines.
Some of the 100,000 people who have fled to neighbouring Dera Ismail Khan, on foot and stuffed into pick-up trucks weighed down with bedding and animals, spoke of intensifying fighting and air strikes targeting villages.
“I decided to leave when my neighbour’s house was destroyed by jet fighters,” said Rahim Dad Mehsud, a labourer from Tiarza who said he walked three days to leave South Waziristan with 12 relatives.
Mehsud, who comes from the same tribe as the TTP leader, said ordinary civilians were the victims of a doomed operation.
“The Taliban cannot be eliminated through a military operation. Both are killing us,” he said.
Some of the displaced civilians accused the authorities of maltreating those from the tribal belt, which has a fierce tradition of independence.
Numerous previous offensives in the tribal belt have had limited success, costing the lives of 2,000 troops and ending generally with peace agreements that critics say simply gave the militants a chance to re-arm.