- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan | Pakistan’s army launched a huge air and ground offensive in the Taliban and al Qaeda stronghold of South Waziristan on Saturday, deploying 30,000 troops, in a critical effort to crush the insurgents, who threaten the stability of the nuclear-armed country.

Troops carried out attacks on several militant bases in the region on the Afghan border, but faced strong resistance from the insurgents on the first day of the offensive.

According to the Associated Press, the Pakistani army said Sunday that 60 militants had been killed, while six soldiers had died. The Taliban claimed to have inflicted “heavy casualties” on the army and to have pushed invading soldiers back into their bases.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters that NATO forces in Afghanistan have been informed of the offensive but that no help would be sought from them during the operation.

He said the military thinks that about 2,000 foreign militants could be present in South Waziristan and that 80 percent of the terrorist attacks carried out in Lahore and other parts of the country were planned in this Taliban sanctuary.

He said the operation would continue for the next six to eight weeks. However, a strong resistance is expected from the militants. Intelligence officials said the offensive also could provoke backlash attacks by the militants.

Curfews have been imposed in the cities and towns surrounding South Waziristan, including Bannu, Wana and Shakai. The roads and paths leading to the militants’ safe havens have been sealed, the army said, with a heavy deployment on the roads between South and North Waziristan.

The U.S. has pushed Pakistan to mount the offensive, which follows three unsuccessful campaigns since 2001 in the mountainous, remote region, the Associated Press reported.

The assault, which has been planned for several months, comes after a surge in attacks by militants killed more than 175 people across Pakistan over the past two weeks.

Over the last three months, the Pakistani air force has been bombing targets, while the army has said it has sealed off many Taliban supply and escape routes.

The U.S. is trying to rush in equipment that would aid mobility, night fighting and precision bombing, a U.S. Embassy official told AP in a recent interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the issue is politically sensitive.

With the people of Pakistan and political parties backing the much-awaited operation, the decision to attack the stronghold of the Taliban was made in a four-hour-long meeting late Friday night that was chaired by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and included the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha briefed the federal Cabinet and opposition parties.

More than 100,000 residents of Waziristan moved away from the region in the past few days in anticipation of the offensive. And government and aid-agency officials fear that the number of internally displaced people will increase tremendously in the coming two days.

Meanwhile, Taliban militants appear to have changed their guerrilla war strategy since the last military offensive in South Waziristan, and officials fear they could attack media groups to mount pressure on the government.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry has warned that offices of private TV channels, press clubs across the country and newspaper offices could be the terrorists’ next targets.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists recently alerted its members of the new threat through an e-mail. It quoted a senior security official as saying, “Telephonic conversation of a commander of Baitullah Mehsud’s network had been intercepted wherein he was issuing directives to his subordinate commanders to target media offices all over the country besides attacking or hijacking school buses and security agencies’ offices.”

Mehsud, the top commander of the Pakistani Taliban, reportedly was killed in a U.S. drone attack in August. The militants have since named fellow tribesman Hakimullah Mehsud as their leader.

The Lahore Press Club has received two letters from the Taliban warning of an attack any time after Oct. 10. The letter explained that the attacks would be carried out if the journalists continue to portray the Taliban as terrorists instead of highlighting them as “mujahedeen.” The letter warned the journalists to “stop becoming a mouthpiece of America and prepare the people for jihad against American infidels.”

The letters were received on Oct. 10 and 12. And on Oct. 15, three simultaneous attacks were carried out in Lahore, targeting three security agencies. Thirty-two were killed, including 10 attackers.

Through the letters, the Taliban group that calls itself “Sars Mission” demanded release of its men, threatening attacks on the courts, the legal community and the Lahore High Court’s chief justice and his family.

The threats have led to increased security around the Lahore Press Club, where visits by worried members have ebbed.

Intelligence reports said coeducational English schools also could be targeted. The Taliban is against coeducation and girls’ education.

Elite English schools have been criticized by the religious and militant organizations for quite some time. They have been provided police security by the government, and some institutions have arranged their own armed security. Attendance at both the government and private schools has remained thin. Some schools have been shut down until Monday.

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