ISLAMABAD // Elite Pakistani troops have launched a major counterterrorism operation in the Kurram tribal region, attempting to lift a three-year Taliban siege and tightening the noose around the insurgents' leadership.
The military's spokesman, General Athar Abbas, said in a brief written statement issued on Monday: "The operation has been launched with the aim of clearing the area of the terrorists involved in the kidnapping and killing of local people, suicide attacks on security installations and forces, and blocking the road connecting lower and upper Kurram."
The operation was launched on Sunday in response to demands made by local tribal leaders, he said.
Militant sources based in the federally administered tribal areas, or Fata, said the operation was being led a secretive counterterrorism brigade-strength unit of the Pakistani army. Brigades range from 1,500 to 5,000 soldiers in strength.
The sources said the brigade, believed to be based near Peshawar, has only once before been deployed, against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) stronghold of Matta in Swat.
The TTP briefly seized Swat, a valley of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, in early 2009.
The brigade receives specialist training in "shock and awe" tactics and has a take-no-prisoners policy, said the militants, who asked not to be named.
Residents told Pakistani newspapers that "thousands" of soldiers had swarmed into the mountainous Dombaki, Gowaki, Manato and Zaimukhet areas of Kurram, with support from army helicopter gunships and air force jets.
They said soldiers had faced no resistance as they re-established state control over government buildings, hoisting Pakistan's flag over schools and healthcare clinics previously occupied by TTP militants.
Air power could be heard pounding militant strongholds in the adjacent Koh-i-Safaid mountain range, the residents said.
About 28,000 people had already left the area, said Sahibzada Anis, a spokesman for the Fata disaster management authority, sparking fears authorities and charities might struggle to cope with the sudden surge of refugees.
More than 450 families were seeking shelter in camps or school buildings, while the majority of the displaced people had gone to their relatives living in different places, he said.
Residents said most of the militants had fled the area ahead of the operation, however, escaping to the neighbouring Orakzai and Khyber tribal regions.
Military officers based in Pakistan's Fata said the TTP chose to retreat after a failed attempt to negotiate with the military through interlocutors of the Haqqani Network, the leading militant faction in eastern Afghanistan.
"They can feel the noose tightening around their neck," said an officer based in Miranshah, the main town of the North Waziristan region.
The network has its headquarters in the neighbouring North Waziristan region and also maintains a large presence in South Waziristan. It is frequently targeted by US drones, but has not fought Pakistani security forces since a controversial peace accord with the government in September 2006. Critics of the peace deal allege the network frequently liaises with other militant factions, including Al Qaeda, and the Pakistani military to maintain peace in the Fata, where possible. In return, it is allowed to freely move to and from Afghanistan, critics say.
The network helped negotiate a peace agreement in January between Kurram's rival Sunni and Shiite tribesmen, who had been at sectarian war since 2007.
Amid growing US pressure for Pakistan to launch a counterterrorism operation in North Waziristan, the network attempted to secure a new headquarters in Kurram in return for their peacemaking efforts.
However, its attempts failed because Shia Toori tribal elders refused to allow its fighters safe passage through the Parachinar area, a move that would have gained the network access to mountain passes into the neighbouring Afghan province of Nangarhar.
The officers said the TTP chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, sent a three-man delegation from his South Waziristan base to the Kurram town of Sadda on June 20 to meet Haqqani Network representatives, asking them to secure a postponement of the forthcoming operation with military officers.
The Haqqani representatives took the request to a senior army commander, and then conveyed his refusal to the TTP delegation, they said.
The refusal sparked an argument that escalated into a gunfight in which two of the three TTP representatives were shot dead, after killing one of the Haqqanis, militant sources based in Sadda said.
Parallel to the military's deployment of men, machinery and munitions into Kurram, the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, had attempted to split the ranks of the TTP, the military officers said.
They said it led to the surprise announcement by Fazal Saeed, the senior TTP commander in Kurram, on June 26 in which he parted with the insurgent group and set up a rival faction, vowing not to target civilians, infrastructure or security forces.
Fear was growing yesterday among TTP commanders that the launch of the military's deployment of crack troops in Kurram could be a precursor to a much bigger, potentially decisive action in North and South Waziristan, they said.
"At first, we thought this forthcoming operation would aim to finish Hakimullah," the militant sources said. "But now we are getting information that the army has plans for a sweeping operation to clear out all militants, including the Haqqanis."