LADDA, Oct 17 The army on Saturday launched a three-pronged attack against Taliban stronghold in South Waziristan amid reports of roadside bombings and stiff resistance that left at least two soldiers dead and eight wounded.
Thousands of troops, backed by jet fighters and helicopter gunships, started advancing on the Mehsud tribe's heartland at Makin from three points at first light.
Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, the chief of the Inter-Services Public Relations, told journalists “The army has launched an operation after receiving orders from the government. The operation was launched early in the morning. Both air and ground troops are taking part.”
The operation, code-named Rah-i-Nijat (path to deliverance), seems to be almost a replay of the one last year against Baitullah Mehsud. The action was called off all of a sudden, perplexing some observers as they felt the forces were close to achieving the objective.
This had drawn criticism from independent observers and contributed to fresh allegations that the militants were the military's surrogates and it would never take decisive action against them.
Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone attack on Aug 5.
The operation, believed to be the most difficult of all against militants in a treacherous terrain in the tribal regions, followed a spate of terrorist attacks, including the one at the General Headquarters, that have left over 150 people dead.
Military and intelligence officials blame militants based in the Mehsud redoubt of South Waziristan for eighty per cent of terrorist attacks in the country.
Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani briefed the political leadership on Friday on the “imperative” of a military operation against the Mehsuds.
The military has been bracing for an operation for the past three months, putting in place 28,000 troops and enforcing a crippling blockade that forced thousands of people to flee their homes for safety.
Military officials said they had undertaken extensive studies to make the operation a success.
The three previous operations in South Waziristan, — in 2004, 2005 and early last year — all ended up with the government suing for peace.
Soon after daybreak on Saturday, forces stationed at Shakai and Tyarza moved towards Badar and Kanigoram from the south, converging on Kalkai from Jandola and Spinkay Raghzai from the east.
Sources said security forces met stiff resistance at both entry points, particularly at Sharwangai, during the surge towards Badar and Kanigoram.
A major and three soldiers were wounded in a clash with militants at Kalkai.
The militants lost nine men in clashes at Spinkay Raghzai, Kalkai and Sharwangai.
Our correspondent in Miramshah adds Two soldiers were killed and four others wounded when a vehicle struck a landmine in Razmak town of North Waziristan during a massive deployment of troops on the border with the South, sources said.
The vehicle was part of a convoy carrying ration for troops. Witnesses said the two soldiers died on the spot while four others suffered injuries.
Thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks and heavy artillery, were rushed to Razmak on Thursday and Friday in the build-up to the South Waziristan operation.
The bombing caused a slight hold-up in the army's movement from Razmak.
Military helicopters were seen flying between Miramshah, headquarters of North Waziristan, and Razmak subdivision. Official sources said that a fleet of transport and combat helicopters had been stationed at Miramshah airport.
According to government officials, militant commander Maulvi Nazir and his Ahmadzai Wazir tribe in the Wana region had publicly dissociated themselves from the Mehsuds. And they were confident that commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur, based in North
All cellular networks in Tank, Dera Ismail Khan and Bannu have been jammed.
Iftikhar A. Khan adds from Islamabad A senior security official told Dawn that the estimated number of hardcore religious extremists and militants in South Waziristan was 10,000. The number includes 1,000 to 1500 foreign militants, most of them Uzbek. Approximately 30,000 soldiers were taking part in the operation, which is a combination of ground offensive and aerial strikes.
“The rudderless leadership of terrorists following the killing of Baitullah Mehsud provides an ideal opportunity to inflict a severe blow to them,” the official asserted.
He said nine tribal militants were killed while four security personnel laid down their lives during an exchange of fire at Jandola-Kotkai and Shakai-Kanigran accesses in South Waziristan on the first day of the operation.
He said a strong resistance was expected, but the security forces were prepared for it as they had been doing spadework for about three months. He agreed that the dynamics of guerilla warfare were altogether different from normal wars, but brushed aside an impression that the Army lacked the capability to tackle hit-and-run bands.
“We know about ambushes, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), road-side and bombings. We have reports that mines have been planted at various points by the militants,” he said.
The official said all escape routes had been plugged. “Although the (militants') footprints cannot be completely sealed, the tracks for vehicles have been blocked and security forces around the area will remain vigilant to kill or apprehend the fleeing terrorists.”
In reply to a question, he said there would be no need to relocate active formations deployed at the border with India for the operation in South Waziristan. He said there was a sufficient number of reserve troops.
He termed the South Waziristan Agency the fountainhead of all terrorist activities in the country. Subversion in Khyber, Bajaur, Orakzai and Mohmand agencies are plotted there, he added.
There was evidence that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was receiving arms and financial support from across the border, the security official said.
He said 80,000 to 100,000 people had already moved out of the area.
The special support group of the Pakistan Army was taking care of them. Non-combatants will be allowed to leave the area even during the operation.
(Haji Pazi Gul contributed to this story from Miramshah and Alamgir Bhittani from Tank).