Pak begins ground offensive against militants

Troops recover underground tunnels, IED making factories

BANNU, Pakistan, June 30, (AFP): Pakistan’s military launched a ground assault in the North Waziristan tribal area on Monday, beginning a new phase in its offensive against Taleban militants, after nearly half a million civilians fled the fighting. Troops moved on Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, around 9:30 am (0430 GMT), officials said, after two weeks of air strikes and artillery bombardment of insurgent targets. Washington has long urged Islamabad to tackle militant sanctuaries in North Waziristan, a haven for Pakistani Taleban and al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.

Security officials in Miranshah told AFP troops moved on the town after six hours of artillery shelling. “They are using tanks and armoured vehicles for ground movement,” a security official said on condition of anonymity. “The forces have also taken over the civil hospital in Miranshah and have destroyed four hideouts in the artillery firing.” Other security officials in Peshawar, the main city of northwest Pakistan, confirmed the advance.

A statement from the military’s communications wing said the assault began “after the evacuation of all civil population”, and infantry troops were carrying out house-to-house searches. Soldiers have killed 15 militants so far in the ground attack, the military said, while three soldiers were wounded in clashes. “Troops have recovered underground tunnels and IED preparation factories,” the statement said. IEDs — improvised explosive devices — have been a popular and deadly weapon for militants fighting the army in Pakistan’s restive semi-autonomous tribal areas on the Afghan border. Since the operation began on June 15, 376 militants have been killed and 19 have surrendered, according to the military, while 17 soldiers have also died.

The conflict zone is off-limits to journalists at the moment, making it impossible to verify the number and identity of those killed. On Saturday the army said a leading Tehreeke- Taleban Pakistan (TTP) commander was killed, while a “prominent” al-Qaeda commander was arrested while trying to flee. Nearly 500,000 people have fled North Waziristan because of the operation, codenamed “Zarb-e-Azb” after a sword used in battle by the Prophet Mohammad. Tens of thousands of families have left for the town of Bannu, close to North Waziristan, while hundreds more have moved further afield to the towns of Lakki Marwat, Karak and Dera Ismail Khan since the offensive began in mid-June

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