Pakistan sent troops, artillery and helicopter gunships to the troubled North Waziristan region on Sunday in a long-expected military operation just a week after a deadly insurgent attack on the country’s biggest airport.
The Taliban and ethnic Uzbek fighters holed up in North Waziristan — home to some of Pakistan’s most feared terrorists and al-Qaida commanders — have both claimed responsibility for last Sunday’s commando-style attack on Karachi airport.
The brazen all-night assault all but destroyed prospects of peace talks with the terrorists, who are fighting to topple the Pakistani government and impose a strict Sharia-based theocracy in the nuclear-armed nation.
The army said a total of 105 insurgents, mostly Uzbeks, were killed by air strikes which preceded the ground operation.
It was not known where in North Waziristan, a mountainous ethnic Pashtun region on the Afghan border, the operation was taking place.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had long opposed outright military action, stressing the need to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and the decision to send troops means that the powerful army had once again won the upper hand in Pakistan.
It also raises the risk of revenge attacks by Taliban insurgents outside the tribal region after the Taliban vowed to strike back and hit Pakistani security and government targets.
In anticipation of more violence, families have been fleeing North Waziristan into other parts of Pakistan as a climate of fear has gripped the lawless mountainous region.
It was not immediately known whether there were any civilian casualties. Journalists’ movements are restricted in the ethnic Pashtun region where the army has imposed a curfew, and verifying official or insurgent accounts is next to impossible.
Military sources told Reuters that Pakistan had sent 40,000 troops to the region for the operation, bringing the total to 80,000 and sealing off the border with Afghanistan.
“Around 40,000 additional troops have been moved into North Waziristan for the operation, backed by artillery and helicopter gunships,” said a military official.
“The border with Afghanistan has been sealed off with thousands of troops to keep terrorists from escaping to Afghanistan.”