PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN // Pakistani forces killed 19 militants in an intense clash in South Waziristan yesterday while insurgents aiming to divert the army's attention launched a raid in another northwestern region, officials said.
The army launched the attack on the militant hub in South Waziristan 10 days ago after the al Qa'eda-linked fighters spread fear with a series of bombings and raids, including a bloody siege at the army's headquarters. Fearing more violence, authorities last week ordered schools and colleges across the country closed, but many of them reopened yesterday. Security fears have also unnerved stock market investors and the main KSE index slid seven per cent last week. The market ended 2.44 per cent higher at 9,374.50 yesterday, but dealers said turnover was low as investors were nervous.
The South Waziristan operation is seen as a test of Pakistan's determination to take on the Islamists responsible for attacks against the state. The United States and other powers embroiled in neighbouring Afghanistan's growing conflict want Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for militants in its lawless north-west. About 28,000 soldiers were advancing on about 10,000 fighters in their main stronghold area from three directions.
About 200,000 people have abandoned their homes in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area, an army spokesman said yesterday. "As of today, 26,165 families have been registered," Col Waseem Shahid, a spokesman for the army's special support group, said. He said the army used a working average of eight members to each family. "The cricket stadium in Dera Ismail Khan has been converted into a hub of registration [and internally displaced people] are being facilitated in registration."
The Red Cross warned last week that relief workers were being kept out of South Waziristan and that the civilian toll was believed to be mounting. The United Nations said that half the people were displaced in the past two weeks. Cash assistance of 5,000 rupees (Dh220) will be given to each displaced family every month as non-food support, officials have said. Pakistan has claimed a string of successes during the operation to crush the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in South Waziristan, pressing its most ambitious battle yet in a tribal area infested with fighters linked to al Qa'eda. The latest fighting took place when Taliban militants tried to block soldiers advancing through a village from the south-east towards a major militant base at Sararogha.
"They put up stiff resistance and used all sorts of weapons including rocket-propelled grenades and heavy and light machine guns," an intelligence agency official said. A military spokesman said forces had managed to secure Gharlai village and nearby ridges after the clash in which militants and six soldiers were killed. South Waziristan's rocky mountains and patchy forest have been a magnet for militants from around the world in recent years. Uzbeks and Arab al Qa'eda supporters are among the foreigners fighting alongside the Taliban.
A groups of militants launched what police said was a diversionary raid yesterday on a security post near the town of Hangu, about 100km north-east of South Waziristan. Fifteen militants and one soldier were killed, police said. "They're trying to help their men," said Fazal Naeem, a police spokesman in Hangu. "Since an operation has been launched against them in Waziristan, they've begun these attacks here to divert attention," he said.
Later, security forces destroyed six hideouts and arrested 15 militants during a search, he said. * Reuters, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse