ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | 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 what appeared to be a U.S. missile strike killed five suspected militants there. The move will likely please Washington, which considers the tribal region a particularly troublesome hide-out for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters implicated in attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Owais Ghani, the governor of North West Frontier Province, said in Islamabad late Sunday that the government decided 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 in embarrassing defeats for the army or ended in truces, strengthening the militants.
“Baitullah Mehsud is the root cause of all evils,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. Ghani suggested the operation has already begun, though the military has insisted its recent attacks on militants in South Waziristan were retaliatory, not the launch of a new offensive. Two intelligence officials said the army and Taliban were fighting in the Spinkai Raghzai area of South Waziristan as the governor made the announcement.
“The government has made the announcement. We will give a comment after evaluating the orders,” army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said late Sunday.
South Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal belt, is a rumored hide-out of al Qaeda leader 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 United States 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 the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
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 militants, 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.