BANNU: Civilians are streaming out of a Pakistani tribal area in a two-pronged exodus ahead of an expected ground assault against Taliban militants, officials said yesterday, with many crossing the border into Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military is waging a long-awaited offensive against insurgents holed up in North Waziristan and began pounding targets with air raids and artillery fire on Sunday.
Tanks and troops have been mobilised and are expected to begin a new, more intense phase of the operation after a three-day window to allow civilians to leave the area, due to end today.
In the latest action, 15 militants were killed by helicopter gunships overnight and eight more by sniper fire while attempting to plant bombs on an important road, a statement from the military said.
Officials say that more than 140,000 people have fled North Waziristan since initial air strikes began in May.
That represents more than a quarter of North Waziristan’s estimated total population but the true figure is likely to be even larger, as official numbers only count people who register with the authorities.
Most of those escaping have gone to the town of Bannu, which neighbours North Waziristan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
Arshad Khan, director general of the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) Disaster Management Authority, said that 51,000 people had arrived in Bannu since Wednesday, when a shoot-on-sight curfew was eased to allow civilians to get out.
That comes on top of 92,000 who had already left, while around 30,000 people have flowed over the porous frontier into eastern Afghanistan.
“So far, an estimated 4,000 families have crossed into eastern Afghan provinces and the displacement is increasing,” an official responsible for monitoring the displacement on the Afghan border said.
Akbar Zadran, a senior government official in the eastern Afghan province of Khost said by telephone that 1,000 Pakistani families had been registered by yesterday while thousands more had taken shelter with the local population.
Washington has long demanded action against militant hideouts in North Waziristan, which has served as a rear base for insurgents battling US-led forces in Afghanistan.
But Pakistan resisted and in February this year began peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has killed thousands in its bloody seven-year insurgency.
The dialogue made little progress and came crashing to a halt last week when Taliban militants staged a dramatic attack on Karachi airport, killing dozens.
So far it does not appear that the TTP have put up significant resistance to the military operation, though this may change once the ground fighting begins, and there have been no retaliatory attacks elsewhere in the country.
A senior security official said the aim of the current easing of the curfew was to clear North Waziristan of civilians to permit a full-blooded assault to go ahead.
“For the moment we are only using the air force, once the local population empty the town, we will move the ground troops in,” the official said.
“Ground battle is yet to be started and it will be a long battle, it will take time, You will see that it will be complete war, we will flush them (militants) out of North Waziristan.”
He said telephone lines to the area would be cut, and with most local journalists leaving for their own safety, it looks likely that North Waziristan will become a communications black hole during the ground offensive.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a prominent local warlord once seen as “pro-Pakistani”, yesterday announced the end of a peace accord with the government and said his men would launch their own operation against the army.
There have been concerns that many of the hardcore militants the operation was supposed to eliminate have already fled North Waziristan, undermining its effectiveness. AFP