Image: Supporters reach out to touch doctor's casket.
Hamza Ahmed  /  AP
Supporters of the slain religious leader Dr. Sarfraz Naeemi struggle to touch his casket as it arrives for burial in the compound of his seminary, on Saturday, in Lahore, Pakistan.
updated 6/14/2009 3:49:59 PM ET 2009-06-14T19:49:59

Pakistan said it will pursue an army operation against the country's top Taliban commander, a feared militant based in a tribal region along the Afghan border where a suspected U.S. missile strike killed five people Sunday.

The announcement came as violence raged in other parts of the volatile northwest. A bombing at a market killed at least eight people, while officials said clashes between the Taliban and security forces killed at least 20 militants in a tribal area supposedly cleared of insurgents months ago.

Over the past month and a half, as Pakistan has pursued an offensive against militants in the Swat Valley, rumors have swirled that it had plans to go into the South Waziristan tribal area to target the country's most powerful Taliban commander, Baitullah Mehsud.

Sporadic clashes between security forces and militants in the region bolstered the reports.

Clearing out South Waziristan would please the U.S., which wants Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for militants implicated in attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.

Start date not set
Late Sunday, the governor of North West Frontier Province told reporters in Islamabad the decision had been made to "take army action against terrorists in Waziristan."

"The forces have been ordered to start the operation," Owais Ghani said. He did not specify an exact start date, but implied that the offensive had already begun.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told The Associated Press: "The government has made the announcement. We will give a comment after evaluating the orders."

South Waziristan, a rugged, remote region, has not only been a Taliban hide-out but also a base for al-Qaida and a rumored home of Osama bin Laden. Clearing it and North Waziristan of militants is considered critical for taking the steam out of the insurgency in Pakistan and undermining the one in Afghanistan.

But in many ways, it would be a harder fight than in Swat, not least because the porous border with Afghanistan could make it easier for militants on the run to escape the army's sights.

A new offensive could also mean more displaced civilians in Pakistan, already struggling to deal with more than 2 million who fled their homes in Swat and surrounding districts.

Mood shifting against Taliban
Pakistan's decision comes as public opinion has shifted against the Taliban, who have been blamed or have claimed responsibility for a series of bloody attacks in recent weeks, including one that killed a moderate cleric and another that devastated a luxury hotel in Peshawar.

U.S. missile strikes could undermine that sentiment because they are deeply unpopular among Pakistanis.

The latest suspected strike — the first since mid-May — occurred in South Waziristan, hitting three vehicles in an area not far from Makeen, a village considered a Mehsud stronghold. The identities of the five fatalities were not certain.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials confirmed the attack on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The government has publicly protested such strikes, saying they violate the country's sovereignty, even though many analysts suspect the two countries have struck a secret deal to facilitate the attacks.

In recent weeks, militants and security forces have repeatedly skirmished in South Waziristan, though the army has insisted it is merely responding to attacks, not pursuing a new offensive.

30 militants killed in strikes Saturday
In a statement, the army said it killed some 30 militants in South Waziristan in strikes Saturday aimed in part at avenging the death of cleric Sarfraz Naeemi. Naeemi, killed in a suicide bombing Friday, had denounced the Taliban.

The market bombing Sunday occurred in Dera Ismail Khan, a town not far from South Waziristan.

Government official Inayat Ullah said 11 to 13 pounds (5 to 6 kilograms) of explosives were planted in a fruit vendor's hand-pulled cart. Police official Mohammad Iqbal put the death toll at eight, with 20 wounded.

At a hospital where some of the wounded were taken, wails and cries filled the air.

"It was crowded there when something big exploded," said 30-year-old Ilyas Ahmad, whose legs were wounded. "It was a big noise. Everybody was crying. Bodies were lying there. People were lying around blood."

A Taliban commander, Qari Hussain Ahmad, blamed the blast on Pakistani intelligence agencies, saying the government was carrying out such acts to legitimize an operation in Waziristan.

"They want to malign us. They want to use killings of innocent citizens against us," Hussain told The Associated Press by phone from an undisclosed location.

Military faces numerous challenges
Fighting on too many fronts could tax Pakistan's military, not to mention government resources. The latest clashes in the Bajur tribal region underscore the challenges facing the military in holding territory it claims to have cleared.

Pakistani security forces used jets, helicopters and artillery to pound suspected Taliban hide-outs in Bajur over the weekend.

Zakir Hussain Afridi, the top government official for Bajur, said the fighting was in the Charmang valley, a stretch he described as largely under Taliban control. Jamil Khan, his deputy, put the militant death toll at 20 since Friday.

Bajur was the main theater of operations against the militants before Swat. After some six months of fighting, the army said in February that the Taliban there had been defeated. But there have been occasional reports since then of ongoing militant activity.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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