PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Pakistani forces pounded militants in tribal areas Monday, after vowing an all-out assault on a Taliban chief in the lawless Afghan border region known to be an Al-Qaeda and rebel hideout.
Security forces are already locked in a seven-week campaign against the insurgents in three other northwest districts, and late Sunday announced a “full-fledged” second front along the mountainous and wild tribal belt.
The United States government has said that Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants are hiding out in South Waziristan and other tribal areas, crossing the border into war-torn Afghanistan and plotting attacks on Western targets.
Pakistan’s jet planes, helicopter gunships and ground forces bombarded militant hideouts in the tribal areas and nearby districts on Sunday, officials said, with up to 44 suspected militants killed in the onslaught.
“Air strikes and shelling by gunships killed 29 militants while 25 were wounded in Safi town of Mohmand tribal district,” said a security official in Peshawar, the provincial capital just south of Mohmand.
Security forces continued their assault in Mohmand on Monday, while similar strikes hit Bajaur region on Sunday.
“Eight militants including their commander were killed while a madrassa used by militants and one hideout were destroyed,” said a security official based in Bajaur’s main town of Khar.
In the Jani Khel area of Bannu district — which borders both North and South Waziristan — militants fired rockets at a police station and an airport early Monday.
“They escaped after suffering heavy losses,” said Zahin-u-ddin, a local police official. “Seven militants were killed in the retaliatory attack.”
Security forces launched their offensive against Taliban fighters across three northwestern districts near Swat valley on April 26, after the insurgents advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad.
Late Sunday, North West Frontier Province governor Owais Ahmad Ghani officially announced that the offensive was expanding to the tribal areas, vowing to track down feared Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
“The government has launched a full-fledged operation in the tribal areas, including Waziristan,” said Ghani.
“We have ordered all the law enforcing agencies to start a full-fledged operation against Baitullah Mehsud and his followers,” he added.
“These are the people who are responsible for all of the bombing, terrorism, (and) killing of innocent people.”
Pakistan has been hit by a wave of bomb blasts and attacks that have killed about 170 people since the military launched the anti-Taliban offensive in late April, attacks widely seen as retribution by the Taliban for the onslaught.
Security analyst Hasan Askari said suicide blasts last week, including one that killed nine people at a five-star hotel in Peshawar and another in the eastern cultural hub Lahore may have spurred authorities into action.
“The incidents last week, the suicide bombs, have led the government to make up their mind that they would not like Baitullah Mehsud and similar groups to take the initiative, to take the war to the cities,” he told AFP.
Pakistan has also been under pressure from ally the United States to crack down on militants hiding out along the porous Afghan-Pakistan frontier. President Barack Obama has put Pakistan at the heart of the US strategy to fight Al-Qaeda.
A 90,000-strong US and international coalition is already fighting Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan.
More than 1,980 people have been killed in Taliban-linked attacks in Pakistan since July 2007