Page last updated at 15:43 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 16:43 UK

Pakistan's unseen offensive


The BBC's Orla Guerin was given rare access to the frontline in the tribal region of Bajaur

The Pakistani army is preparing a new offensive in the tribal areas adjoining the Afghan border, the main stronghold of Pakistan's Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud.

Much of the fighting against militants is taking in remote mountains and valleys - and much of the action is unseen.

Our Pakistan Correspondent Orla Guerin was given rare access to the frontline in Bajaur, part of the tribal belt, where the Taliban have been putting up strong resistance.

With a cry of Allah Akbar (God is Great) Pakistani troops rushed to reload a 155mm Howitzer - its giant barrel pointing towards a jagged ridge.

The heavy guns are out in Pakistan's war against the Taliban.

President Asif Ali Zardari says that the country is fighting for its very survival. The West says it's long overdue. This was the final push for Bajaur, part of Pakistan's lawless tribal belt. It's a stronghold of the Taliban and, allegedly, al-Qaeda.

We stood in the ruins of a school, watching the artillery barrage and the plumes of smoke that followed. But we could not verify what had been hit.

The Taliban were cornered but resisting, according to Capt Aaqib Nasir. "They are giving us a tough time," he said, "because after this they have no place to run within Bajaur agency."

He's already lost some of his men, but he says this battle has to be fought.

"We are just fighting for one cause," he said. "That is our country. That it is our nation. We have to fight for our nation and we'll die for our nation."

Attack helicopters over the border area of  Bajaur
Pakistan says it's doing more than any other country to fight the Taliban

The troops have been advancing in recent days, but slowly and carefully at the rate of about 600m a day.

They took us to the frontline - a strategic hillside, captured just hours before.

It had been a Taliban operations centre, providing a commanding view of the Sarkari Qila Valley, a key route to Afghanistan. The name means "Government Fort" but there's no sign of any government here.

Brig Abid Mumtaz stood on the hilltop, surveying the valley below, but he couldn't enjoy the view for long.

There was a burst of gunfire, and our stay was cut short. The Taliban were still too close for comfort and troops were concerned for our safety.

The day before we were shown a stretch of road in neighbouring Mohmand. Troops had pushed the Taliban back from the road, but they had not given up.

They had sneaked back overnight - planting seven roadside bombs. They were discovered just before we arrived.

We were told the militants were in the hills above us, less than a kilometre away. As we examined a fresh crater left by one of their homemade devices it was easy to imagine them watching. We left quickly - in case they had any mortars to hand.

Pakistan maintains it's fighting hard against the militants, and has been since 9/11 - arresting more al-Qaeda suspects and losing 1,200 soldiers - more troops than all the Nato forces in Afghanistan combined.

Hamid Ullah Khan, bereaved Father
These cruel people [The Taliban] took him from me and I want them to be punished. They are destroying their own country
Hamid Ullah Khan

"There is no other country which compares to us," said Gen Tariq Khan, head of the Frontier Corps, one of those leading the fight. "There is simply no argument that we haven't done enough as far as this is concerned."

But he concedes that Pakistan woke up late to the Taliban threat in the tribal belt.

'It was mistake to be as indifferent as we were in the past," he said. "It was not a deliberate act. I think a lot of people didn't even know what was happening. The tribal areas are quite isolated. As far as indifference is concerned we need to take due note of that, and that's what we will correct in the future too."

Critics - and there are many - claim Pakistan nurtured and appeased the Taliban in the past and is being selective now. They claim it's arresting those attacking Pakistan, not those targeting Afghanistan.

And there is another criticism of the military crackdown - that so far at least it is foot soldiers who are being killed or captured, not senior leaders.

But there is a widespread feeling here now that this is Pakistan's fight. Many feel the Taliban went too far, with their floggings and their beheadings, and they want them stopped.

We met one man, who refuses to be silent, in spite of Taliban death threats. Hamid Ullah Khan is a broken-hearted father, mourning a beloved son. His name was Imad, and he was 22 years old.

Hamid says the Taliban turned his studious innocent son into a suicide bomber, and dispatched him to Afghanistan.

In his suicide video Imad smiles for camera and insists he is acting of his own free will. He's shown riding a bicycle - the mode of transport for his attack. After his death, the Taliban sent his shoes home to Hamid, with their congratulations.

Soldiers in north-west Pakistan
The army says it is encountering fierce oppostion

"He was very dear to me," said Hamid, his voice choked by grief. "He was my helping hand. These cruel people took him from me and I want them to be punished. They are destroying their own country."

Punishing the Taliban comes at a price. Around two million people have already been displaced by the military crackdown.

As they swelter under the scorching sun in canvas tents, they want to see quick results from the army. But if Pakistan is to stop the militants, this will be a long war.

The Taliban have shown they are good at comebacks.

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