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October 18, 2009

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Major army attack on Taliban region

MORE than 30,000 Pakistani soldiers launched a ground offensive against al-Qaida and the Taliban's main stronghold along the Afghan border yesterday, officials said, in the country's toughest test yet against a strengthening insurgency.

The United States has long pushed the government to carry out an assault in South Waziristan, and it comes after two weeks of militant attacks that have killed more than 175 people across the country, spurring pressure on the army to act.

Pakistan has fought three unsuccessful campaigns since 2001 in the region, which is the nerve-center for Pakistani insurgents fighting the US-backed government. It is also a major base for foreign militants to plan attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan and on targets in the West.

After months of aerial bombing, troops moved into the region yesterday from several directions, heading to the insurgent bases of Ladha and Makeen among other targets, intelligence and military officials said, adding the operation was expected to last around two months.

The airport in the nearest major town, Dera Ismail Khan, was closed to civilian aircraft earlier this week.

Pakistani army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas confirmed last night that a full-fledged ground operation was under way and said that it aimed to "uproot" the Pakistani Taliban. He said it was too early to discuss what sort of resistance the army was meeting.

The United Nations has said it is preparing to help civilians who are fleeing the region. Up to 150,000 civilians have already left in recent months after the army made clear it was planning an assault, but there are perhaps as many as 350,000 remaining.

At least 11 suspected insurgents were killed in the jet bombings, while a bomb hit a security convoy, killing one soldier and wounding three others, two local intelligence officials said. A military statement last night said four soldiers were killed and 12 wounded in exchanges of fire elsewhere in the region.

It is nearly impossible to independently verify information from the region, which is largely controlled by local tribes and has little infrastructure or government presence. Foreigners require permission to enter tribal areas, and few Pakistani journalists risk traveling there.

Makeen resident Ajmal Khan said people there were terrified but could not leave their homes due to a curfew.

"We heard sounds of planes and helicopters early Saturday. Then we heard blasts," Khan said by telephone.


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