A man clears debris from the tarmac of Jinnah International Airport, after the attack by Taliban militants earlier this month. REUTERS/Athar Hussain/Files
Pakistan has sent troops, artillery and helicopter gunships
to the troubled North Waziristan region in a long-expected
military operation just a week after a deadly insurgent
attack on the country's biggest airport.
The Taliban and ethnic Uzbek fighters holed up in North
Waziristan - home to some of Pakistan's most feared militants
and al Qaeda commanders - have both claimed responsibility
for last Sunday's commando-style attack on Karachi airport.
The brazen all-night assault all but destroyed prospects of
peace talks with the militants, who are fighting to topple
the Pakistani government and impose a strict Sharia-based
theocracy in the nuclear-armed nation.
The army said a total of 105 insurgents, mostly Uzbeks, were
killed by air strikes which preceded the ground operation.
"Our valiant armed forces have been tasked to eliminate these
terrorists regardless of hue and colour, along with their
sanctuaries," the army said in a statement.
"With the support of the entire nation, and in coordination
with other state institutions and law enforcement agencies,
these enemies of the state will be denied space anywhere
across the country."
It was not known where in North Waziristan, a mountainous
ethnic Pashtun region on the Afghan border, the operation was
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had long opposed outright
military action, stressing the need to bring the Taliban to
the negotiating table, and the decision to send troops means
that the powerful army had once again won the upper hand in
It also raises the risk of revenge attacks by Taliban
insurgents outside the tribal region after the Taliban vowed
to strike back and hit Pakistani security and government
The army has resorted to periodic air strikes against
militant positions but has not been involved on the ground.
Earlier on Sunday fighter jets pounded militant hideouts.
"We as a government tried our level best to resolve this
crisis through dialogue," the defence ministry said in a
statement. "We were frustrated through attacks on innocent
Pakistanis and damage to national assets."
It added: "This operation will continue until the surrender
or elimination of the enemy."
In anticipation of more violence, families have been fleeing
North Waziristan into other parts of Pakistan as a climate of
fear has gripped the lawless mountainous region.
It was not immediately known whether there were any civilian
casualties. Journalists' movements are restricted in the
ethnic Pashtun region where the army has imposed a curfew,
and verifying official or insurgent accounts is next to
Military sources told Reuters that Pakistan had sent 40,000
troops to the region for the operation, bringing the total to
80,000 and sealing off the border with Afghanistan.
"Around 40,000 additional troops have been moved into North
Waziristan for the operation, backed by artillery and
helicopter gunships," said a military official.
"The border with Afghanistan has been sealed off with
thousands of troops to keep militants from escaping to
Pakistani authorities fear that militants might try to escape
through the porous border along with civilians.
A senior foreign ministry official said Pakistan had asked
Afghan counterparts to help seal the border. "Afghanistan has
assured complete assistance but let's see if they follow
through," the official said.
CLIMATE OF FEAR
The army said troops had encircled militant bases in the
towns of Mirali and Miranshah but as of late Sunday it was
unclear if fighting was under way.
"Announcements will be made for the local population to
approach designated areas for their orderly and dignified
evacuation out of the agency," the army said.
The army said ethnic Uzbeks accounted for most of those
killed in the earlier air assault.
"Fighter jets targeted militant hideouts in the village of
Dagan near the Pakistani-Afghan border," said one source in
the regional capital of Miranshah.
"An important Uzbek commander, Abdul Rehman, has been killed
in the air strike," he said, adding that Rehman was directly
involved in masterminding the Karachi airport attack.
Military sources said a number of ethnic Uighur militants,
who operate alongside Uzbeks and share a similar Turkic
language with them, had also been killed.
The official account could not be independently verified and
there was no immediate comment from the Taliban.
China believes that Uighur separatists based in Pakistan's
tribal areas are behind an insurgency against Han Chinese in
its restive Xinjiang province.
After the Karachi attack, in which 38 people were killed,
U.S. drones conducted the first air strikes in Pakistan since
the start of the year, hitting militant positions.