Pakistani military begins ground phase of South Waziristan offensive
Heavy fighting has broken out in South Waziristan as the Pakistani Army and paramilitary Frontier Corps have begun moving ground forces forward into tribal areas run by Taliban chieftain Baitullah Mehsud.
More than 30 Taliban fighters have been reported killed in separate engagements in South Waziristan. Pakistani forces, backed by Air Force F-16 fighter-bombers, attack helicopters, and artillery, have begun to engage Baitullah's forces in earnest.
The clashes "should be read as the formal launch of an offensive against Baitullah," Pakistani intelligence officials told AFP.
Heavy fighting broke out when Pakistani forces advanced into the towns of Barwand and Madijan, which are controlled by Baitullah's followers. The military is reported to have moved artillery units forward into these two towns.
Fighting broke out along the Wana-Jandola road after Taliban forces attempted to block Pakistani troops near the town of Sarwaki. The Wana-Jandola road is the main route into South Waziristan. The Taliban have controlled the road for the past three years. The military plans to secure the road before launching "a full-fledged assault on Baitullah Mehsud and his supporters," Dawn reported.
Helicopter gunships also pounded Taliban positions in the Kund Serai, Wara, and Serwekai. The military attacked a Taliban training camp, two madrassas, and three Taliban safe houses, the military said.
The military has been moving forces into regions just outside of Baitullah's tribal areas the past week. Large numbers of soldiers accompanied by tanks and armored vehicles have been seen passing through the neighboring district of Tank. Military bases in Jandola and Manzai are said to be the staging areas for the offensives. Upwards of 20,000 Pakistani troops are reported to have been moved into the region to execute the offensive.
The military began conducting air and artillery strikes in South Waziristan in earnest this week in preparation for the assault. A June 16 airstrike in Baitullah's home town of Makeen is reported to have wounded Tahir Yuldashev, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Yuldashev is said to lead more than 4,000 Uzbek and Central Asian fighters along the Afghan-Pakistani border. He is closely allied with Baitullah, as well as with South Waziristan Taliban commander Mullah Nazir and Osama bin Laden.
The US also weighed in against Baitullah with a June 14 Predator strike in Makeen. Five Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are said to have been killed in the attack.
The Pakistani government has signaled the offensive in South Waziristan will focus exclusively on Baitullah and his followers. Mullah Nazir, who also shelters al Qaeda and hosts their training camps, and North Waziristan's Hafiz Gul Bahadar and the Haqqani family, who also sponsor al Qaeda in their tribal areas, have not been identified by the Pakistani government as targets of the operation.
The focus on Baitullah to the exclusion of Bahadar, Nazir, and the Haqqanis may prove costly to the Pakistani military. Baitullah has an alliance with Nazir and Bahadar, which was created at the urging of Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, and the Haqqanis. There are rumors that Bahadar and Nazir may sit on the sidelines for the operation, but Bahadar has reportedly offered safe passage for Baitullah and his followers to move into Afghanistan.