ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistani jet fighters flattened at least three suspected Taliban training facilities in the volatile South Waziristan tribal region Friday, killing or wounding several insurgents, two senior intelligence officials said.
The Taliban also opened fire on troops elsewhere in the mountainous area, starting an exchange of fire that was still going on hours later, said an intelligence official, without giving any further details. The battle marked the first ground fighting since the military started softening up the area with artillery several days ago in preparation for an expected offensive.
The highly anticipated operation in South Waziristan is seen as a potential turning point in the yearslong and sometimes halfhearted fight against militancy in Pakistan. It could also help curb Taliban attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan.
Friday’s bombing runs were launched in response to reports of dozens of militants in the Zor Sorvakai, Madijan and Katkai areas, which are considered to be strongholds of Pakistan’s top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media. They said it was unclear how many insurgents were killed or wounded in the attacks.
The troop deployment in many areas of South Waziristan had been completed, and soldiers were moving toward strategic areas where large numbers of Taliban fighters were believed to be entrenched, they said.
One of the officials said the military was blocking all roads that the militants could use to flee.
The South Waziristan operation comes on the heels of a similar offensive in the Swat Valley, but fighting in the lawless tribal region will likely be the toughest yet for Pakistan’s military, testing both its combat capability and the government’s will to see it through.
The Swat offensive is winding down, commanders say, with more than 1,300 militants and 100 soldiers killed.
A humanitarian crisis remains, with more than 2 million people displaced by the fighting and more than 230,000 of them living in refugee camps. International agencies say the emergency could become much worse if there is a further exodus from Waziristan.
Elsewhere in the troubled northwest, Taliban militants were blamed for bombing three schools in the Bajur area, where the military declared victory over the extremists in February. No casualties were reported.
Adalat Khan and Jamil Khan, who are both government officials in the area, said two boys’ schools were blown up early Friday in villages northeast of Khar. A government college for boys was blown up in a town further north.
Jamil Khan said an improvised device planted alongside a road also exploded Friday, wounding a tribal police officer.
Pakistan’s military declared victory in Bajur after an almost six-month offensive. But the Taliban still hold sway in some parts of the region.
A bomb exploded Friday at a roadside restaurant near a bus stand in the remote southwest, wounding at least 12 people, said Naseebullah Khosa, a top government official in the region.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack in Dera Murad Jamali, a town about 240 miles (400 kilometers) east of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. However, small nationalist parties have waged a low-scale insurgency in the province to get more wealth from natural resources such as gas and oil extracted from their areas. Authorities have blamed them for such attacks in the past.