By Zia Khan
ISLAMABAD — Pakistani forces were preparing for a major ground offensive against Islamist militants in the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan, officials said Monday after nearly all civilians had fled the north-western region along the Afghan border.
Nearly half a million people have evacuated the battleground tribal district since a military offensive was launched there June 15, a military official said.
Fighter jets and helicopter gunships have killed about 300 insurgents since then, according to the military.
“Troops are ready to go for a kill anytime,” one official said after the military said fresh airstrikes and gun battles killed 25 militants Monday.
Two troops were also killed in clashes with militants, a military statement said.
“The plan is to storm and clear their hideouts within this week … before Ramadan,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
The Muslim fasting month is expected to begin this coming weekend.
Another military official predicted that ground troops were unlikely to meet any significant resistance because the “targets had been softened by airstrikes and artillery fire in recent weeks.”
Both the officials said ground troops surrounding militant hideouts were waiting for civilians to flee the area and might be pushing ahead in a day or two.
“They will have air power backing their advance,” one official said.
The military relaxed a curfew that had kept civilians indoors so they could travel to safer areas and expects most remaining residents to have left the combat zone by late Monday.
The offensive in North Waziristan was launched after years of international pressure on Pakistan to launch a military campaign there. It began a week after militants attacked Karachi’s airport, killing about 40 people.
The Taliban and its allies have used North Waziristan as a base to train fighters and attack international forces in Afghanistan.
Information about casualties and military operations there are hard to verify because the area is not accessible to journalists.
Meanwhile, security remained tight in all major Pakistani cities, including Islamabad, with police guards searching vehicles at entry points and army troops patrolling streets.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the military to eliminate terrorists after months of efforts to engage Islamist militants in a peace process ended without making any headway.
AFP Photo/Rizwan Tabassum