Pakistan's military said Sunday it had launched a long-awaited ground offensive to eliminate Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants from the troubled North Waziristan tribal region a week after a brazen insurgent attack on Karachi's airport.
The airport siege was claimed by Taliban and Uzbek militants holed up in the district on Afghanistan's border -- considered the last remaining stronghold of Islamist militants -- in an assault that killed 38, including ten attackers, and left a nascent peace process in tatters.
An operation on North Waziristan has been a long-standing demand of Pakistan's Western allies, including the United States which accuses Islamabad of using the area to give sanctuary to the Haqqani network of fighters, known for their spectacular raids on NATO targets inside Afghanistan.
The offensive came just hours after overnight airstrikes killed at least 80 people in the region including insurgents linked to the Karachi airport attack, according to the military -- though local officials placed the toll as high as 150.
"On the directions of the Government, Armed forces of Pakistan have launched a comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists who are hiding in sanctuaries in North Waziristan," a military statement said.
Khawaja Asif, the minister of defence, added in a statement: "The Pakistani nation is fully behind its armed forces. Directions have been given to eliminate terrorists who were responsible for the slaughter of innocent Pakistani civilians and law enforcement officials."
- 'Thousands of troops' -
A military official in the main North Waziristan town of Miranshah told AFP that the coordinated operation -- involving airforce, artillery, tanks and thousands of ground troops -- has already started.
"Thousands of troops will participate in this action. You can roughly say 25,000 to 30,000 troops will be involved in the operation," the official added on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media.
"We are trying to finish this operation as soon as possible but can't give an exact time frame. It can conclude in a few days but can also take longer," he added.
One official said the alleged Uzbek mastermind of the Karachi attack had been killed in the overnight airstrikes.
"Abu Abdul Rehman Almani, who was mastermind of attack on Karachi airport, and several other commanders have been killed in the strikes," he said.
The military assault targeted the mountainous Dehgan area, some 25 kilometres (16 miles) west of the main town of Miranshah in North Waziristan, a stronghold for Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants on the border with Afghanistan.
"Today at about 0130 hours (2030 GMT), a number of terrorist hideouts in Dehgan, Datta Khel in North Waziristan were targeted by jet aircraft. The number of terrorists killed in early morning strikes has risen to 80, mostly Uzbeks," a military statement said.
Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, in a an e-mail to media vowed to avenge these attacks, but was not immediately available to provide further details.
- Dialogue over -
Thousands of foreign militants, including Chechens, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks and Uighurs, were drawn to North Waziristan in the early 2000s, lured by the fiery rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and the chance to fight "infidel" forces in Afghanistan.
But many of them have been slipping away in recent weeks amid long-running rumours of a military operation, with official estimates suggesting an exodus of some 60,000 people from the region since May, raising questions about the effectiveness of an operation there.
For years, Pakistan's government has been under pressure from Western allies to launch a ground offensive in the Taliban-infested North Waziristan, one of seven tribal districts along the border.
But authorities have held back from a final push -- possibly fearing the blowback in Pakistan's major cities such as Karachi.
Following the brazen assault in Karachi, the US carried out two drone strikes in North Waziristan on Wednesday -- the first time the controversial programme has been used this year.
Washington reportedly suspended drone attacks in December to give Islamabad time to pursue peace talks with the TTP aimed at ending a seven-year insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.
The dialogue resulted in a month-long ceasefire between March and April, but later broke down, with Pakistan resuming air strikes on suspected militant hideouts in the tribal areas.
The army was widely seen as being opposed to the dialogue because of the heavy casualties it has sustained at the hands of the TTP, which views them as a mercenary force serving foreign interests.
But following the Karachi attack, Asif, the defence minister, signalled the time for talks was now over.
"We as a government tried our level best to resolve this crisis through dialogue. We were frustrated through attacks on innocent Pakistanis and damage to national assets," he said.
"This operation will continue till the surrender or elimination of enemy."