Pakistan launches Taliban offensive

The Pakistani military has launched its ground offensive against Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan, hitting back after a string of deadly attacks across the country.

The ground operation began early on Saturday, with troops advancing from three directions, officials said.

Tens of thousands of civilians are said to have fled the area ahead of the fighting.

The army says about 28,000 soldiers are battling an estimated 10,000 Taliban fighters, including about 1,000 Uzbeks and some Arab al-Qaeda members.

Major-General Athar Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, announced the operation was under way, but did not give details or say how long it was expected to take.Rata Penuh

Tariq Hayat, the secretary of law and order for Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, of which South Waziristan is part, said that despite South Waziristan's rugged terrain he expected the operation to be successful.

"A lot of planning has gone into it," he told Al Jazeera from Peshawar.

"This offensive is against people who have chosen to take up arms against Pakistan, who have chosen to fight against Pakistani troops and target innocent Pakistani civilians ... however, innocent people have nothing to fear from this operation."

By the afternoon, four soldiers were reported killed and 12 injured in clashes with Taliban fighters.

Civilians flee

Wolfgang Herbinger, the country director for the World Food Programme, based in Islamabad, said his organisation had readied itself for the exodus from the fighting.

"We have food stocks in nearby areas," he told Al Jazeera.

"As a United Nations organisation we have been preparing for quite some time. We have had to anticipate in different parts of the country, including South Waziristan, that people will be on the move."

For weeks the army has been using air and artillery attacks on Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan and a curfew was put in place on Saturday.

Mohammad Khalid Khan, a senior government official, said: "The curfew is for the protection of military convoys [moving toward Taliban strongholds] and it is on the roads. The bazaars are open."

Intelligence officials said that Pakistani troops were advancing from Zhob to the south, Razmak to the north and Jandola from the east.

People are reported to be fleeing from the Shakoi and Zangra areas, with many moving through North Waziristan where a makeshift camp has been set up at Mir Ali.

The US hopes that a Pakistani army operation in South Waziristan will help break much of the opposition network that threatens both Pakistan and American troops across the border in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani offensive had been much talked about. It comes after a series of bomb attacks across the country over the past two weeks that have killed more than 170 people.

Sustained attacks

In the latest attack, at least 11 people died in two explosions near a police office in the city of Peshawar.

Imran Khan, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Islamabad, said: "South Waziristan is where Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, is based.

"And the police say that the carnage we have seen over the last 12 days is being planned from South Waziristan.

"So this is a crucial operation to decapitate the head of the senior Pakistani Taliban leadership ... But there is always the problem that if you squeeze the Taliban in one area, they pop up in another."

Khalid Rahman, the director of the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad, said that the cause of the violence in Pakistan was the US war on the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that the Afghan conflict needs to be addressed for long-term success.

"The whole conflict has extended to Waziristan and then to some of the settled areas of Pakistan," he said.

"It is certainly the Pakistani government's responsibility to take care of things within Pakistan."

He said that the recent attacks had created a "favourable environment" for the military's assault on South Waziristan, but warned: "That is not going to last. Because the cause is Afghanistan and that remains."

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