Page last updated at 16:32 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 17:32 UK

Pakistan army readies for attack

 Pakistani army officer walks down from a hill top after army landing in a helicopter dropping foreign media representatives in Mingora on June 3, 2009
The army's offensive in the Swat valley is ongoing

Troops are amassing around Pakistan's tribal district of South Waziristan in readiness for an offensive against the Taliban there, officials say.

Army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas confirmed the army intended to launch an operation against Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban.

Despite reports of shelling in the area in recent days, there was no word on when a sustained offensive might begin.

Baitullah Mehsud's group is blamed for a string of deadly attacks in Pakistan.

He has his stronghold in South Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan, an area also rumoured to be the hideout of Osama Bin Laden.

His group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has been blamed for some of the most destructive attacks around Pakistan in recent times. He was accused of involvement in the death of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto - an accusation he denies.

Pakistan's army chief Ashfaq Kayani confirmed on Monday that eliminating Baitullah Mehsud was a key goal for the security forces.

Difficult terrain

Although the army has shelled and launched air raids around the area in recent days, the army was cautious about disclosing details of the operation before it actually began.

"The army has been given its orders and we will now take the necessary measures to launch the operation," Maj Gen Athar Abbas said.

"It would be premature to discuss tactics or when we will target the person in question," he added.

Baitullah Mehsud

The BBC's Syed Shoaib Hasan in Islamabad says that Pakistan's security forces are likely to face much stiffer resistance in Waziristan than they have in the Swat valley where the army is entrenched in a battle to dislodge the Taliban from their strongholds there.

Many of the militants in Waziristan are Afghan veterans and have cut their teeth fighting Nato forces in Afghanistan, our correspondent says.

In addition, the terrain is difficult and that will make it hard to rely on aircraft and heavy artillery.

But operations have been continuing in the Janikhel tribal territory of Bannu region, the strip of land that separates the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) district of Bannu from North Waziristan.

Here, troops began attacks against militants and their tribal supporters in the area, mainly for their complicity in the mass kidnapping of a group of students who were travelling through the district earlier this month.

All the students were later released but the army pressed ahead with its clampdown in the area.

It has set up checkpoints in the district. The area around is considered to be a "constituency" of Baitullah Mehsud.

Further north, in Upper Dir, a local tribal force is still fighting militants whom they have surrounded in the Dhok Darra area. In the past the army has provided reinforcements to the local tribesmen but they are yet to defeat the Taliban in that particular confrontation.

'Consensus required'

Meanwhile, the army says it has made progress with its high profile operation in Malakand with key areas like Shangla now under army control.

Electricity had been restored to large parts of Mingora, the main city of the Swat valley, the army said, adding that supply trucks were now heading to the region.

But, correspondents say, the Taliban still has the capacity to launch guerrilla strikes against the army.

And many analysts point out that an operation against Baitullah Mehsud will require consensus across Pakistan's political spectrum, which only the central government can develop.

In the past, Pakistani army action has faltered or ended in truces that, correspondents say, have only strengthened the militants.


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