ISLAMABAD/MIRANSHAH - As calls for stopping targeted operation in North Waziristan to avert civilian deaths grew stronger, the government has come forward to defend the security forces’ right to pound hideouts of the militants who recently launched deadly attacks on the soldiers.
The attacks on the security forces will not be tolerated at any cost and the government will not show leniency towards terrorists, Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif told media persons here on Friday as troops continued their strikes at the militants for a third day.
Thousands of people are fleeing to safer places from Mir Ali subdivision of restive North Waziristan Agency (NWA). The military raids were launched a day after a suicide attack on a military checkpoint in Khajori area of Mir Ali Subdivision killed at least five soldiers and wounded 34 others. Ansarul Mujahideen, a little-known militant group linked to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), had claimed responsibility for the suicide attack.
The retaliation of security forces against foreign terrorists was a legitimate response to attacks on army convoys in Waziristan, where scores of army jawans embraced martyrdom, Asif said. "We will not surrender our right of self defence against attack on our security forces," he held.
The minister said the security forces were offering sacrifices to save the lives of Pakistanis and it was their right to retaliate for their defence . He said the latest operation had been launched after an attack on the security forces in Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan Agency (NWA). He warned foreign militants not to cross limits otherwise the government would take strict action against them.
Local sources said security forces imposed curfew in Musaki, Eppi and Haider Khail villages and used gunship helicopters and artillery shells against the alleged militants. Fearing escalation in the fighting, which had claimed 40 lives by Friday, a large number of people fled these three areas and migrated to safer places of Bannu and Miranshah.
Clashes between security forces and militants have been rocking North Waziristan Agency since Wednesday’s suicide bombing on Khajori checkpoint. Militants again attacked security forces the same day as they returned after rescuing soldiers wounded in the bombing, prompting the military to respond with mortars, artillery and helicopter gunships in a search operation to catch the insurgents.
The security forces said they retaliated and killed 33 suspected persons on Thursday after unidentified people opened fire on troops in Mir Ali Bazaar amid curfew in the area. Four more bodies were recovered on Friday from the debris of two hotels that came under heavy fire after fleeing militants used them to take refuge. Exchange of fire was also took place late Thursday at Amin checking point in Miranshah, the main town but with no loss of life. The number and identity of those killed could not be verified independently because of the ongoing search operation and curfew. The area is also off-limits to foreign journalists and aid groups.
The military says all of those killed in the operation were Taliban militants, but locals said many of those who died in the hotels were drivers forced to stay there by a curfew imposed on Tuesday. But local people alleged that mostly civilians were targeted in the military crackdown. They said people had left all of their belongings behind. However, curfew was relaxed for two hours from 11am to 1pm.
Nazir Khan Wazir, the member of parliament for the area, said most of those killed and wounded were not militants. "Most of those killed and wounded were innocent civilians. People are facing a terrible time. They are trapped in their houses," Wazir told AFP. "Dozens of houses have been damaged by shelling. Residents are also facing food shortages." Wazir appealed to the government to stop the bombardment to allow locals to bury their dead and take the wounded to hospital.
A senior security official said the search operation was still going on in Mir Ali and surrounding areas. Maulvi Gul Abbas, an Islamic cleric in Mirali told AFP that residents were not able to sleep for the whole night because of the continuous firing. "Dozens of houses have been damaged. All those killed inside the houses were local residents," Abbas said.