Peshawar, June 30: The Pakistani military said today that it had launched a ground assault in North Waziristan, marking the most determined effort yet to seize control of a lawless tribal district that has become a hub of Islamist militancy.
After two weeks of air and artillery strikes during which more than 500,000 people fled the area, soldiers moved into Miran Shah, the main town of North Waziristan, early today, military and intelligence officials said.
In a statement confirming the operation, the military press office said that infantry and special forces units had carried out house-to-house searches in the town, uncovering militant tunnels and bomb factories. The statement said that 15 militants had been killed and three soldiers wounded in the ground offensive, but did not offer details of the fighting.
The military was continuing to direct tank and artillery fire on militant targets in Mir Ali, the other major town in North Waziristan, it said.
No independent confirmation of the military’s claim was available. Local and foreign news media outlets are not allowed to enter the volatile tribal region, which is along the border with Afghanistan, and journalists are dependent on official press statements about the developments of the military assault.
The military operation in North Waziristan started on June 15, one week after militants based in the district carried out an audacious assault on Pakistan’s largest airport, in Karachi, that left at least 36 people including 10 attackers dead.
Last week, suspected Taliban militants attacked a passenger jet as it landed at Peshawar airport, killing a passenger and causing several international airlines to suspend their services to the northwestern city.
In the past decade, North Waziristan has become a sanctuary for an array of militant groups including the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaida.
The Pakistani Taliban and allied Uzbek militants, both of which claimed responsibility for the Karachi attack, are the principal targets of the current operation, officials say. But the military spokesman has insisted that the operation will also target the Haqqani network, which fights in Afghanistan and has longstanding ties with Pakistani military intelligence. Still, reports from different sources suggest that some militants have fled the area in anticipation of the operation.
Last week, Taliban commanders said that some fighters had moved into nearby South Waziristan.