PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — After several months of ineffectual negotiations with tribal leaders, Pakistan has launched a major military offensive against Al Qaeda and foreign militants in South Waziristan.
Sunday, Pakistani gunship helicopters and jet fighters bombarded hideouts as troops and guerrillas engaged in fierce gun battles. The Army said that at least 55 militants and 17 soldiers were killed since the fighting began Wednesday; but tribesmen fear the toll could be much higher, saying that both sides took heavy losses in remote areas.
Fighting on this scale has not been seen since March, when Pakistani forces incurred heavy casualties as they pushed militants out of local towns. Now the battle has moved into the mountains and isolated villages bordering Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, could be hiding. Thousands of military and paramilitary troops are deploying from three directions in an attempt to eliminate safe houses and force the fighters toward Afghanistan, where US-allied forces are active.
"The battle is now on difficult terrain," says Sailab Mehsud, a regional expert based in Waziristan. "Pakistani forces would want to restrict [the fighters] onto the mountains and [the militants] would try to spread themselves to different areas to divert the pressure."
The fighting, which includes bombing and heavy artillery, is centered on small villages on the hills surrounding the town of Shikai.
The foreigners have a number of hideouts and training centers there, some 15 miles west of Wana, the regional capital.
Hundreds of civilians have fled the troubled areas, while others are still trapped and complaining of water and food shortage. The authorities have imposed a ban on local journalists to enter Shikai and issued a deadline to Afghan refugees to leave nearby camps within three days.
"I have been sleeping and waking up with the roaring sounds of helicopters and fighter planes," says Arif Khan, a resident of the town of Shikai. "Whenever I peep outside, I see smoke and the fast movement of soldiers."
It remains unknown whether any "high value" terrorist leaders are among the casualties.
"The killed militants seem to be Uzbeks and Chechens, and we are trying to identify them," says a security official. Most of the bodies still could not be recovered from the affected areas. Currently most of the foreign fighters, sources say, are Central Asian militants and Arabs believed to be hiding in the mountains of Khamrang, Bush Sar, and Shawwal, the highest mountain in South Waziristan.
Hundreds of foreign militants, mostly Uzbeks, Chechens, and Arabs who fled from the US-led overthrow of Afghanistan's Taliban government, are believed to be hiding in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt. They have received local support from tribesmen and veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
In the months since the March operation, Islamabad has tried to chip away at local support for the foreigners by organizing a tribal posse, attempting to register foreigners, and offering amnesty to leading local supporters of Al Qaeda. However, the tribal force came back empty-handed, the foreigners ignored repeated deadlines to register, and top Al Qaeda supporter Naik Mohammad announced he would continue to wage jihad. Tribal sources say hundreds of Mr. Mohammad's men are currently fighting alongside the foreigners.
"Now the chances of resuming the political process are very slim. The tribesmen tried to play tricks," says educated tribesman, Dilawar Khan.
Pakistan faced mounting international pressure - including several US incursions across the border from Afghanistan - to take action against the foreigners in the weeks prior to the latest offensive.
"Pakistan took a bold decision to fight against terrorism. We are ready to pay the price, whatever it may be, and we will take this fight against terrorism to its logical end," says an Army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.
As the fighting moves to more remote and inhospitable battlefields, the battle has grown less conventional.
"Al Qaeda militants and their local supporters armed with rockets and automatic weapons are fighting in groups and attacking the ground forces in guerrilla-warfare style. And Pakistani forces are bombing the targets and the neutral tribesmen are caught in the middle," says a tribesman, Farid Khan.
"It is going to be a difficult task. Even if the security forces continue airstrikes, it will take weeks and weeks because the mountains are covered with jungles, ... caves, and tunnels," says a tribal elder, Malik Waris Khan Afridi.