- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s army launched air strikes and ferried in tanks and artillery as it confirmed Tuesday that it was preparing a major offensive against insurgents in the safe haven of al Qaeda and the Taliban along the Afghan border.

The highly anticipated military operation in South Waziristan is seen as a potential turning point in the years-long and sometimes half-hearted fight against militancy in Pakistan. It could also help curb Taliban attacks on Western forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

But the offensive in the lawless tribal region will also be the toughest yet for Pakistan’s military, testing its fighting capability and the government’s will to see it through, analysts said.

Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the military had received executive orders from the government to begin operations against Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, whose base is in South Waziristan.

“The necessary measures and steps which are part of a preliminary phase of the operation, the preparatory phase of the operation, that has commenced,” Gen. Abbas told reporters.

But Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira stressed that the operation “has not been officially started.”

They declined to give more details, citing operational secrecy.

Convoys of military trucks carrying tanks and artillery were seen Tuesday in the towns of Dera Ismail Khan and Tank, near South Waziristan. Intelligence officials said they were part of the buildup for the operation against Mehsud.

In recent days, the military has shelled and launched air strikes in South Waziristan and neighboring Bannu, although so far there has not been large-scale fighting with the militants.

On Tuesday, the army shelled suspected militant hide-outs in three villages in South Waziristan in response to attacks on two military checkpoints, and helicopter gunships targeted Mehsud hide-outs in the region, intelligence officials said.

One official called the attacks “surgical strikes” ahead of the main operation.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose information to the media.

The military buildup comes as the army says it is entering the final stages of a major operation against the Taliban in the northwestern Swat Valley, which has triggered a wave of retaliatory attacks by militants across Pakistan that have been blamed on Mehsud.

More than 100 people have died since late May in suicide bombings on targets including police and security buildings, mosques and a hotel catering to foreigners. The attacks have fueled anti-Taliban sentiment in Pakistan that in turn has emboldened the politically weak government of President Asif Ali Zardari.


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