By Alamgir Bitani
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani aircraft bombed Taliban fighters in their South Waziristan bastion on Wednesday as more soldiers and tanks moved in for an expected offensive against the militant hub.
The government says most attacks in the country — including four major ones since October 5 that killed more than 100 people — are plotted in South Waziristan on the Afghan border.
“It was intense bombing. Three hideouts were hit,” Mohammad Khalid Khan, a senior government official in the region’s main town of Wana, told Reuters by telephone.
Khan did not have information about casualties but intelligence officials in the region said at least 10 militants were killed.
Residents and security officials said the military was sending more soldiers into mountains overlooking Makeen, a main stronghold of the al Qaeda-linked militants, while other soldiers were approaching from another direction.
“We’ve seen many tanks coming here since yesterday. Some went to their camp while others were deployed in the mountains,” said Sayed Wali, a resident of Shankai village.
The government in June ordered the army to launch an offensive in South Waziristan. Since then the military has been conducting air and artillery strikes to soften up the militants’ defenses.
The government says the assault is imminent but it will be up to the army to decide when to send in ground troops.
The militant attacks over recent days unnerved investors in Pakistani stocks, but on Wednesday the main index rose 1.2 percent on optimism about the energy sector.
“READY FOR ASSAULT”
A ground offensive in South Waziristan could be the army’s toughest test since the militants turned on the state.
The army has not said when it would begin but a senior military officer in the region told Reuters that they were set.
“We’re ready for the assault. Preparations have been done. It’s just a matter of the go-ahead order,” said the officer who declined to be identified. “It’ll be done from multiple directions to squeeze them.”
About 28,000 troops have been put in place to take on an estimated 10,000 hardcore Taliban, army officials have said.
But some analysts worry that might not be enough, especially if the army has to block militants from other factions based in North Waziristan coming to the help of their comrades.
Pakistani Taliban fighters made advances toward Islamabad early this year, raising fears about the stability of the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
But government forces have made gains against the militants in recent months, largely driving them out of the Swat valley, northwest of the capital, and their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed by a missile fired by a U.S. drone aircraft in August.
New Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud said in comments released on a video his fighters would stop its attacks and would go to fight India if the government stopped cooperating with the United States, ARY News television said.
Separately, Ilyas Kashmiri, a prominent Pakistani militant and al Qaeda member who Pakistani officials said was killed in a drone strike on September 14, surfaced to give an interview to the Asia Times Online, the news service said.
The army has also been attacking militants in the Bajaur region, also on the Afghan border to the northeast of Waziristan, in recent days.
Even if Pakistan achieves victory in South Waziristan, analysts say it could still face months or years of traumatic guerrilla warfare against militants, though the insurgents have no chance of gaining control of the state.
(Additional reporting by Hafiz Wazir; Writing by Kamran Haid er; Editing by Robert Birsel)