Pakistan braced for militant reprisals on Monday as the army conducted softening-up operations ahead of an assault on the stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, one of al Qaeda’s main allies.
Military experts see the showdown in remote South Waziristan as a possible Waterloo for al Qaeda and its allies as the government has demonstrated a fighting spirit hitherto missing in Pakistan.
“We will continue to fight until the last Taliban, militant, enemy of Pakistan is flushed out of Pakistan,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told police in Islamabad on Monday.
Extra police roadblocks caused long traffic tailbacks in the capital on Monday morning as Rehman feared more bomb attacks like those that killed eight people in Dera Ismail Khan on Sunday and nine in a Peshawar hotel last week.
US officials say they believe the Pakistan army has started a big push into Mehsud’s mountainous redoubt, and on Sunday, Awais Ahmed Ghani, governor of North West Frontier Province, confirmed an operation had been ordered.
The United States heaved a sigh of relief when the army went on the offensive in late April to clear the Swat valley and neighbouring districts northwest of the capital, Islamabad.
The start of a campaign against Mehsud will doubly reassure Western allies, who fear the nuclear-armed Muslim state could plunge into chaos unless the Taliban’s creeping advances are stopped.
Waziristan has long been regarded as a militant sanctuary, and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden passed through the area before disappearing after fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001.
Military and intelligence officials told Reuters the main operation has not yet started, though a countdown has begun.
There have been a series of actions in recent days, including the bombing of a Mehsud village on Saturday, and an army assault on militant tribesmen in the Bannu district, while two forts in Waziristan came under heavy attack from Mehsud fighters.