BANNU, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan's air force pounded targets in the country's northwest on Monday, killing 27 militants, the army said, as the government finally pushed ahead with a military offensive against insurgent safe havens.
The airstrikes are part of the long-awaited operation against foreign and local militants in North Waziristan, a tribal region near the Afghan border that is used as a base by the insurgents to attack the rest of Pakistan. The operation was first announced on Sunday.
The region is essentially lawless with little or no government control and also serves as a training base for militants and a staging point for insurgents who attack NATO and Afghan troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
The United States has for years complained to Pakistan about its failure to go after what it considers the area harboring the country's most dangerous militants.
The airstrikes early Monday targeted six hideouts in the Shawal area near the southern border with South Waziristan, a neighboring tribal region, the military said in a statement. It said 27 militants were killed in he sttrikes.
Separately, the military said seven militants were killed trying to escape Mir Ali, one of the two main towns in North Waziristan, and another three were killed by snipers while they were trying to lay roadside bombs near Miran Shah, the other main town in the region. Three Pakistani troops were also wounded in an exchange of fire with militants.
Few details have been released about the size of the operation or the military assets involved.
The military said their forces were sealing off the North Waziristan borders and the main cities. It said the forces established areas where militants can surrender their weapons if they want and were ensuring the evacuation of civilians. The military said the operation was progressing as planned and that no operations in civilian areas had been started so far.
Residents reached by telephone reported hearing loud explosions overnight but said they cannot go outside because there is a curfew in place.
"We have been just hearing big bangs and explosions. We can't go out to see what's happening out there," said Sajid Dawar, a resident of Miran Shah, speaking by telephone. He urged authorities to help people leave as quickly as possible.
Another resident, Ziaullah Khan from Mir Ali, said people were starting to run out of food because the markets had been closed for a few days.
The North Waziristan tribal area, where the operation is targeted, is one of the last areas in the tribal regions where the military has not launched a large operation. Militant groups including the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaida and the Haqqani network have long used the region as a base.
The Pakistani military said it has asked the Afghan government for help reinforcing its side of the border, to prevent militants from fleeing into Afghanistan.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have argued repeatedly over violence along the porous border and the presence of militants in Pakistan.
Kabul accuses Pakistan of failing to take action against militants like the Haqqani network who are believed to be responsible for some of the major high-profile assaults in Afghanistan. Critics also say Pakistan maintains a so-called "good Taliban, bad Taliban" policy in which they go after militants such as the Pakistani Taliban who attack the state but tolerate or support others, such as the Afghan Taliban, who operate in Afghanistan so they can maintain influence there.
The offensive ends the government's policy of trying to negotiate with Pakistani Taliban militants instead of using force to end the years of fighting that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and security forces. It comes a week after the militants laid siege to the country's largest airport in an attack that shocked the country and appeared to mark a turning point in the government's thinking about the offensive.
But the large military operation could spark a wave of bloody reprisal attacks across the country, especially in places such as Karachi or Peshawar where militants already have a sizeable presence.
Even before the airstrikes hit, residents in North Waziristan were leaving the area due to previous airstrikes and out of fear of a larger operation.
Nawal Khan Dawar from Mir Ali said he arrived in Bannu six days ago with his family after an air strike nearby destroyed several houses. He said he rented a house for his family but without any work, he doesn't know how long they'll be able to stay. He said he's worried about other family members still in North Waziristan.
"We don't know what happening with them. We have not heard from them," he said.