- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 20, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani ground troops moved into Taliban-controlled areas Friday and engaged in the first gunbattle of a new offensive in the volatile northwest, as an aerial and artillery bombardment pounded other targets.

Officials said Friday’s action did not represent the start of a full-scale operation in the tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan, but that most troops were now in place awaiting further orders.

The coming operation in South Waziristan, along with one winding down in the Swat Valley farther north, could be a turning point in Pakistan’s years-long and sometimes halfhearted fight against militancy.

It could also help the war effort in Afghanistan, because the tribal belt is believed to house key bases of al Qaeda and Taliban militants accused of launching attacks on Western and government forces in Afghanistan.

South Waziristan government official Nematullah Khan said Friday that ground troops had started taking up positions around strongholds of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who is blamed for a series of suicide attacks in Pakistan that have killed more than 100 people since late May.

“Troops have entered Mehsud’s areas” for the first time, Mr. Khan said.

Nearby, fighter bombers and artillery pounded suspected militant targets, flattening at least three suspected training facilities and killing or wounding several insurgents, two senior intelligence officials said.

The Taliban opened fire on troops elsewhere in the mountainous area, starting a gunbattle that lasted hours, said one of the intelligence officials, without giving any further details. It was the first ground fighting since the military announced this week that the operation was on, but in its early stages.

The troop deployment in many areas of South Waziristan has been completed, and soldiers were moving toward strategic areas where large numbers of Taliban fighters were thought to be entrenched, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give information to the media.

One of the officials said the military was blocking all roads that the militants could use to flee.

Mr. Khan said a full-scale operation was still not under way.

“These are sort of advance” attacks, he said. “These are attempts to soften targets before hitting them hard. But you can say something has begun.”

Mahmood Shah, a retired brigadier and former chief of security of the tribal regions, said one army division of up to 20,000 troops was based in South Waziristan and that many more were needed before the operation could be launched.

The current action “appears to me to be attempts to confuse Baitullah, to disturb him psychologically,” Mr. Shah said.

Mehsud is thought to have some 5,000 or more fighters who are entrenched in steep mountainous terrain fortified with bunkers and tunnel networks. Thousands more could be expected to join the fight if tribal elders think the military offensive might also challenge their power in the semiautonomous zone, Mr. Shah said.

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