/ 12 October 2009

Pakistan bombs militants, ground offensive imminent

Pakistani aircraft attacked Taliban militants in their South Waziristan stronghold near the Afghan border as the government said a ground offensive against the al-Qaeda-linked fighters was imminent.

The aircraft struck the militants late on Sunday, hours after commandos stormed an office building and rescued 39 people taken hostage after an attack on the army headquarters.

”The jets hit and destroyed two of their hideouts in Makeen and Ladha and we have a total of about 16 militants killed,” a Pakistani intelligence official in the region said.

Pakistani Taliban militants linked to al-Qaeda have launched numerous attacks on government and foreign targets over the past couple of years killing hundreds of people.

The military has been conducting air and artillery strikes in south Waziristan for months, while moving troops, blockading the region and trying to split off militant factions.

But a ground offensive, in what could be the army’s toughest test since militants turned on the state, has yet to begin.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Reuters in an interview in Singapore the offensive was ”imminent”.

”There is no mercy for them because our determination and resolve is to flush them out,” Malik said. ”They have no room in Pakistan, I promise you.”

Malik said members of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda were suspected to have been behind Saturday’s attack on army headquarters in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, which ended a week when suicide bombers struck in the capital Islamabad and Peshawar, killing more than 50 people.

Security officials said there appeared to be links between the attackers, who were disguised in army uniforms, and militant groups based in Punjab province.

But Malik said it was too early to to say whether those groups were involved.

Stocks not dented
Malik said the offensive against the militants in South Waziristan was no longer a matter of choice.

”It is not an issue of commitment, it is becoming a compulsion because there was an appeal from the local tribes that we should do the operation,” he said.

About 28 000 troops have been put in place to take on an estimated 10 000 hard-core Taliban, army officials said earlier.

Investors in Pakistan’s main stock market were unperturbed by the weekend of violence outside the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in which nine gunmen, eight soldiers and three hostages were killed.

”The market discounted the GHQ thing completely today,” said Ashraf Zakaria, a dealer at brokers Ali Hussain Rajabali and Co.

The main index was 0,02% lower at 9 766,31 at 5.33am GMT.

”The matter was resolved very quickly and the efficient way that things were handled made sure that investor confidence was not dented,” Zakaria said.

Security around the headquarters, and in the nearby capital, is very tight but analysts say it is very difficult to guard against gunmen disguised as security force members who are prepared to kill anyone who challenges them, and to be killed.

The gunmen were stopped at a main gate and did not get into the headquarters.

An offensive in South Waziristan would not have a long-term effect on the market as investors felt concrete action was necessary, dealers said.

Early on Monday, aircraft also attacked militants in the Bajaur region, about 250km north-east of Waziristan, government officials in the region on the Afghan border said.

”Two jets have been bombing militant hideouts in areas very close to the Afghan border. They’ve made several sorties,” said one official who declined to be identified.

There was no information on casualties in the latest attacks. – Reuters