PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The Pakistani military said Sunday that it had launched a “comprehensive operation” against foreign and local militants hiding in the tribal region near the border with Afghanistan.
In a prelude to the announced offensive, Pakistani fighter jets pounded suspected militant hide-outs in Pakistan’s tribal belt early Sunday, killing at least 50 fighters, many of them foreigners. Military officials called those attacks a reprisal for the militants’ assault on the Karachi airport one week ago that left 36 people dead.
In the days after the Karachi assault, military officials had hinted that plans were underway for a major operation in the northwestern tribal belt, primarily in North Waziristan. And last week, US drones attacked militant targets twice in the region after an almost six-month lull in the drone operations while Pakistani officials tried and failed to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban.
The military, which said in a statement Sunday that the offensive was launched at the direction of the Pakistani government, offered no details about how many troops were involved or how the operation would be carried out.
According to the military’s statement, the militants in North Waziristan have “waged a war against the state of Pakistan” and have been “disrupting our national life in all its dimensions, stunting our economic growth, and causing enormous loss of life and property.” The military said that it had been “tasked to eliminate these terrorists regardless of hue and color, along with their sanctuaries.”
A security official in Peshawar said that in the early attacks Sunday, F-16 jets fired missiles at targets in Daigan, a mountainous area in North Waziristan, the main hub of militant activity in the northwestern tribal belt.
The airstrikes hit eight houses and militant bases, including one run by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group that claimed responsibility for carrying out the Karachi attack, in cooperation with the Pakistani Taliban.
The military’s official spokesman said that more than 50 fighters had been killed, but some security officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested that the toll could be higher, possibly more than 150 people. Those accounts could not be independently confirmed because the movements of journalists are restricted in the region.
In a statement, the military press office said that the targets of the attack were “linked with planning” the assault on the Karachi airport and that most of the dead were fighters from Uzbekistan. An ammunition depot was also destroyed, it said.
In a separate wave of attacks, helicopter gunships and artillery fired on militant targets in Mir Ali, another militant hub in North Waziristan, the security official said. Local residents said that the villages of Haiderkhel and Khaisor had been hit. The military released no information about casualties from those attacks.
One local resident said that dozens of civilians had been killed in the attacks.
“Jets indiscriminately bombed houses where many civilians were residing,” said the resident, Hajji Haider Khan, a tribal elder, speaking by telephone. Khan said that because of a curfew imposed on the area, “we cannot collect our bodies from the debris.”
The military’s announcement of its long-anticipated offensive in the tribal region followed the attacks on the militant hide-outs, but it was not possible to immediately confirm whether there were any further attacks as part of the announced offensive Sunday.
For months the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has hesitated over launching an offensive against the militants in North Waziristan, preferring instead to talk with the militants and try to negotiate a peace settlement.
But the peace efforts have effectively collapsed in recent weeks, and the military has carried out limited strikes against militant targets in North Waziristan.
The militants’ audacious attack on Karachi airport, which briefly closed the country’s busiest airport, has further strengthened the hand of officials, including senior generals, who have indicated that a major offensive against the militants is imminent.
Local residents are fleeing the tribal areas amid reports of an impending offensive. A senior official in Islamabad said that 59,000 people had left for neighboring districts. Afghan officials say that 6,000 have taken refuge in southwestern Khost province, which borders North Waziristan.
Pakistani government officials in North Waziristan have been advised to evacuate their families, the official said. “People are packing up,” he said. “This is an indication of the coming military operation. It can be any day now.”
But it is unclear which militant groups an operation would target.
Although the Pakistani military is opposed to the Pakistani Taliban, it has a more complex relationship with other militant groups in the tribal belt, including the Haqqani network, which has ties to Pakistani intelligence agencies and avoids directly attacking the Pakistani military.