Sunday, June 14, 2009

Pakistan Army Launches Operation in South Waziristan

Via Yahoo! News (AP) -

Pakistan ordered its army to go after the country's top Taliban commander, a feared militant whose remote stronghold could prove a difficult test for troops but whose demise would be a major blow to the insurgencies here and in Afghanistan.

The announcement Sunday of the operation in South Waziristan, rumored for weeks, came hours after a suspected U.S. missile strike killed five alleged militants there. The move will likely please Washington, which considers the tribal region a particularly troublesome hide-out for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters implicated in attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Owais Ghani, the governor of North West Frontier Province, told reporters in Islamabad late Sunday that the government felt it had no choice but to resort to force against Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud and his network. Past army action in the region had usually faltered or ended in truces, strengthening the militants.

"Baitullah Mehsud is the root cause of all evils," Ghani said, noting a slew of suicide bombings that have shaken Pakistan in recent days. "The government has decided that to secure the innocent citizens from terrorists, a meaningful, durable and complete action is to be taken."


South Waziristan, part of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt, is a rumored hide-out of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. As the military has pursued a separate offensive against Taliban fighters in the northwest's Swat Valley, observers have noted that the Taliban will not be defeated in Pakistan unless they lose their tribal sanctuaries.

The U.S. has frequently targeted South Waziristan with missile strikes. The suspected strike Sunday hit three vehicles and killed five suspected militants. Two Pakistani intelligence officials confirmed the attack on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Neighboring North Waziristan, another militant stronghold and target for U.S. missiles, may also fall under the new Pakistani offensive at some point.

Mehsud is believed to pose a serious internal threat to the Pakistani government, and has been blamed for the killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, though he has denied that accusation. The Taliban chief also has been linked to bombings on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In many ways, a full-scale battle in South Waziristan will be a harder fight than in Swat, where the army claims to have killed hundreds of militants over the past six weeks.

One reason is that the tribal region's porous border with Afghanistan could make it easier for militants to escape to the other side. Because of the tribal belt's semiautonomous nature, the government has long had limited influence, allowing militants to become deeply entrenched.

A new offensive could also mean more displaced civilians in Pakistan, already struggling to deal with more than 2 million who fled their homes in Swat and surrounding districts.

Pakistan's decision comes as public opinion has shifted against the Taliban, who have been blamed or have claimed responsibility for a series of bloody attacks in recent weeks, including one that killed a prominent anti-Taliban cleric and another that devastated a luxury hotel in Peshawar.

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