PESHAWAR, March 25: Thousands of Pakistan Army troops that battled foreign militants and their local supporters for over a week in the rugged South Waziristan tribal region are winding up their operation by Saturday, a senior military officer told Dawn.
Operation Kaloosha-II that involved the biggest military and paramilitary engagement in the tribal history of Pakistan would come to a close in the next 36 to 48 hours, the military officer said.
"We are winding up the operation latest by Saturday," Peshawar Corps Commander Lt-Gen Safdar Hussain said. "The mission that was given to us has been accomplished. We have achieved our objective of destroying and denying sanctuary to militants.
Most of them have either been apprehended or have dispersed in smaller groups. We are now going to chase them out," he said here on Thursday. Mr Hussain, who took charge of his new assignment in Peshawar, barely days before the army went into the operation in the remote tribal region, said his endeavour would now be to stop militants from regrouping.
"The best option with them now is to lay down their arms and surrender and not create a situation where the army is forced to be employed as an instrument of power."
The nearly two hours sitting with the general revealed that the army would like to let the political administration in the tribal region play a more proactive role in flushing out foreign militants instead of relying outrightly on military force.
"The use of force should be the last resort", as the Corps Commander put it. "I would like political process to lead the way. I firmly believe that even in worst case scenarios negotiations are the best way to resolve issues.
I would like to avoid bloodshed. The ball is now squarely in the court of tribesmen whether they want to live peacefully and respect the rule of law." He however, made it clear that his troops would remain stationed in the rugged tribal region to help the government reestablish its writ.
Pakistan pressed nearly one division of its army and three wings of the paramilitary Frontier Corps - a total of about 14,000 troops - into action to flush out foreign militants and their tribal supporters in what is the largest and biggest operation in any of the federally-administered tribal region since Pakistan's creation.
Gen Safdar said he had no plans to reduce the strength of his troops in South Waziristan. On the contrary, he said, he would want to reinforce his troops if the need arose.
"There will be no reduction in the troops. In fact, I am going to reinforce the existing strength if the situation so demands. There is no going back", he emphasised. "I am going to pump in everything."
But the Corps Commander said he had worked out a detailed security plan to keep his men in South Waziristan. "We have a comprehensive plan", he said. At least 30 military and 15 paramilitary soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the Operation Kaloosha-II on March 18.
Twenty soldiers - 12 from the paramilitary and eight from the Pakistan Army - are missing since the operation. Two political tehsildars are also amongst those believed to have been taken hostage by militants.
Authorities in the regional headquarters in Wana said they were hopeful the jirga of Zalikhels - the tribe which has borne the brunt of the military operation, would be able to trace and recover the missing paramilitary soldiers and the two tehsildars.
A lashkar of Mehsud tribesmen was also busy looking for the eight army soldiers who were part of a convoy that was ambushed near Serwakai on Monday. An official source said the militants had earlier demanded the release of 26 tribesmen held during various operations in the past. "There is no question of negotiations," the official said.
"The release of our hostages is not an issue," said Fata secretary (security) Brig Mehmood Shah. "The issues are the surrender of the foreign militants and their tribal protectors," he insisted.
"Had the release of hostages been an issue, we could have swapped them with the prisoners whose freedom they had been demanding. What is the problem," he asked. A 52-member all-tribes jirga which had gone and met militants to persuade them to give themselves up and release hostages returned to Wana in the evening. They are expected to convey to the administrator, South Waziristan, Muhammad Azam Khan, message from the militants.
Dawn has learnt on good authority that the government is considering a special development package for the North and South Waziristan tribal regions that would involve massive funding that would not only aim to improve the living standard of the tribal people but also develop their economic stakes in the country.
South Waziristan with its 6,619 sq. kilometres area is the largest and the poorest of all the seven tribal regions, would get special attention, a senior government official said.
The package would also include plans to help provide a sustained means of livelihood to tribesmen in the rugged and forlorn South Waziristan, the official said. But the official said such a package would be conditional to an agreement by tribesmen that they would have to accept the rule of law. "Without peace and security there can be no development," the official said.