PAKISTANI troops pounded Taliban forces for a second day yesterday in the lawless South Waziristan tribal area as reports emerged that as many as 12,000 local and foreign militants were fiercely resisting the long-awaited ground offensive.
As many as 28,000 soldiers have flooded the South Waziristan tribal agency in recent days, sealing off the Taliban stronghold in the central west of the Mehsud clan-dominated region, away from the Afghanistan border, and seizing several Taliban bases.
Officials said yesterday the military had established checkpoints on all fronts to prevent militants spilling over the porous Pakistan-Afghan border or north into the bordering North Waziristan agency, dominated by the Wazir tribe.
"The operation will continue until the objectives are achieved. The army has blocked all entry and exit points of Waziristan," Major General Athar Abbas said.
The military operation in South Waziristan follows repeated requests from the US to eliminate Taliban and al-Qa'ida safe havens within Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas that now serve as the launching pad for attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan and terrorist plots against the West.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban (Pakistan Taliban) is believed to control about half of South Waziristan, home to the Mehsud tribesmen who are veterans of every major campaign in the region, including the 1980s Afghan war against the Soviet Union.
Security officials said 20 militants and five soldiers had been killed in the operation, which has displaced 150,000 civilians.
Ground troops advanced on three fronts at the weekend; north towards Makeen, east from the Afghan border towards Taliban bases at Spinkai Raghzai and Kotkai -- home to the newly appointed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud -- and west from the edge of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province to seal off areas controlled by the Mehsuds.
Locals said the militants, including about 1500 foreign troops mostly from the Central Asian Republics, were offering fierce resistance.
Makeen resident Ehsan Mahsud said the army appeared to be relying on airstrikes and artillery against militants occupying high ground, and insurgents were firing heavy machineguns at helicopter gunships, forcing the air force to use higher-flying jets.
Another resident from Wana, a town at the heart of Taliban-held territory, said most of the insurgents had already left and were stationed on the borders of the region.
The UN confirmed yesterday that 100,000 people had registered for assistance since fleeing the area in June when the army began an aerial bombing campaign to "soften up" the region. An army spokesman estimated that number could soon double.
Source: The Australian