Militants fired on helicopter gunships and attacked Pakistani troops advancing into their main sanctuary near the Afghan border, residents and those fleeing reported Sunday, as the army pressed ahead with its most critical offensive yet against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The assault in South Waziristan comes following repeated requests from the U.S. to take on the jihadists behind soaring terrorist attacks in the nuclear-armed nation and al-Qaida and other extremists believed to be plotting strikes in the West.
The push involves mostly poorly equipped soldiers trained to fight conventional wars, not counterinsurgency operations, who have failed in three other campaigns in the mountainous region since 2001. Five soldiers and 11 militants have been reported killed since the offensive began Saturday.
Reporters are blocked from visiting the region, but early accounts Sunday suggested that the 30,000 troops were in for much tougher fight than in the Swat Valley, another northeastern region that the army successfully wrestled away from insurgents earlier this year.
"Militants are offering very tough resistance to any movement of troops," Ehsan Mahsud told The Associated Press in the town of Mir Ali, close to the battle zone. He and a friend arrived there early Sunday after traveling through the night.
Reliance on airstrikes
He said the army appeared to be mostly relying on air strikes and artillery against well-dug in militants who were occupying high ground. He said the insurgents were firing heavy machine guns at helicopter gunships, forcing the air force to use higher-flying jets.
The army is up against about 10,000 local militants and about 1,500 foreign fighters, most of them from Central Asia. They control roughly 1,275 square miles of territory, or about half of South Waziristan, in areas loyal to former militant chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. missile strike in August.
A resident in the town of Wana in the heart of Taliban-territory said the insurgents had left the town and were stationed on the borders of the region, determined to block any advance in their territory, which has been under militant control for several years.
"All the Taliban who used to be around here have gone to take their position to protect the Mehsud boundary," Azamatullah Wazir said by phone. "The army will face difficulty to get in there."
Intelligence officials said Saturday that the ground troops were advancing on two flanks and a northern front of a central part of South Waziristan controlled by the Mehsuds. The areas being surrounded include the insurgent bases of Ladha and Makeen, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to brief the media.
As many as 150,000 civilians — possibly more — have left in recent months after the army made clear it was planning an assault. Most are believed to be staying in rented homes or with host families, but there are perhaps as many as 350,000 still in the region. The United Nations has been stockpiling relief supplies in a town near the region, but authorities are not expecting a major refugee crisis like the one that occurred during an offensive this year in the Swat Valley, also in the northwest.
Over the last three months, the Pakistani air force has been bombing targets, while the army has said it has sealed off many Taliban supply and escape routes. The military has been trying to secure the support of local tribal armies in the fight.
At least 11 suspected insurgents were killed in the jet bombings, while a roadside bomb hit a security convoy, killing one soldier and wounding three others, two local intelligence officials said. A military statement Saturday evening said four soldiers were killed and 12 wounded in exchanges in the region.
It is nearly impossible to independently verify information from the region, which has little infrastructure or government presence. Foreigners require permission to enter the tribal areas, and few Pakistani journalists from other parts risk traveling there.