Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pakistan Launches Ground Offensive Against Al Qaeda

"More than 30,000 Pakistani soldiers launched a ground offensive against Al Qaeda and the Taliban's main stronghold along the Afghan border Saturday, officials said, in the country's toughest test yet against a strengthening insurgency.

The United States pushed the government to carry out the assault in South Waziristan, and it comes after two weeks of militant attacks that have killed more than 175 people across the nuclear-armed country. That has ramped up pressure on the army to act.

Pakistan has fought three unsuccessful campaigns since 2001 in the region, which is the nerve-center for Pakistani insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed government. It is also a major base for foreign militants planning attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan and on targets in the West.

After months of aerial bombing, troops Saturday moved into the region from several directions, heading to the insurgent bases of Ladha and Makeen among other targets, intelligence and military officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic or because they were not allowed to brief the media.

They said the operation was expected to last around two months.

Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas confirmed early evening Saturday that a full-fledged ground operation was underway, and said that it aimed to "uproot" the Pakistani Taliban. He said it was too early to discuss what sort of resistance the army was meeting.

The United Nations has said it is preparing to help civilians that are fleeing the region. Up to 150,000 civilians have already left in recent months after the army made clear it was planning an assault, but there are perhaps as many as 350,000 remaining.

At least 11 suspected insurgents were killed in the jet bombings, while a bomb hit a security convoy, killing one soldier and wounding three others, two local intelligence officials said.

It is nearly impossible to independently verify information from the region, which is largely controlled by local tribes and has little infrastructure or government presence. Foreigners require permission to enter tribal areas and few Pakistani journalists from other parts risk traveling there.

Makeen resident Ajmal Khan said people there were terrified but could not leave their homes due to a curfew.

"We heard sounds of planes and helicopters early Saturday. Then we heard blasts," Khan said via telephone. "We are also hearing gunshots and it seems the army is exchanging fire with Taliban."

The army has deployed more than 30,000 troops to the region, said one of the intelligence officials. The military already has said it has sealed off many supply and escape routes and has been trying to secure the support of local tribesmen in the fight."

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