ISLAMABAD - Up to 50 militants were reportedly taken out in the air strikes by security forces in two tribal agencies as the defence minister reiterated that state forces would give a befitting response to every incident of aggression.
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Pakistan Army led these strikes in militancy-plagued Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). The aerial assaults were launched in retaliation against the recent acts of terrorism by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
At least five top TTP commanders – Jihadyar Mehsud, Sailab Wazir, Abdul Razzaq Wazir, Abdul Sattar Khan and Mahmood Khurasani – were killed in six major strikes in North Waziristan Agency (NWA), while three strikes in Khyber Agency killed Gulab Afridi and Muntazir Khan alias Ameer Hamza, security sources claimed.
“The cowardly acts (of terrorists) cannot continue. The bloodshed of the innocents shall not be allowed to keep spilling. Miscreants would be paid in the same coin,” Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told the journalists on Thursday. “More than 15 attacks have taken place in recent days since the start of peace talks. The terrorists will now have to pay the price.”
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had approved the launch of aerial strikes after getting briefing from the army chief, the minister said.
The PAF F-16 jets from Northern Air Command (NOC) and Cobra fighter choppers from Army Aviation Corps (AAC) executed the strikes, sources in the PAF said. Air Officer Commanding NOC Air Vice Marshal Arshad Mehmood Malik and General Officer Commanding (GOC) Aviation Major General Anjum Inayat directly supervised the surgical operation, the security officials said.
The number of terrorist casualties in the NWA (by Thursday evening) was believed to be between 36 and 40 whereas that of Khyber Agency was eight to 10. Jihadyar Mehsud was the mastermind of attack on police bus in Karachi that killed 13 police commandos whereas Muntazir Khan alias Ameer Hamza was allegedly involved in attacking a cinema and a security forces vehicle in Peshawar that separately killed at least a dozen people and Major Jehanzaib Adnan from Pakistan Army.
“There are confirmed reports of 35 militants including foreigners killed in these air strikes,” a senior security official told our NWA correspondent. He said the first strike killed Commander Abdul Sattar when his compound was pounded by the jets followed by a series of strikes on Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik and Taliban hideouts. The compounds of TTP commander Jihadyar and Abdul Razzaq were also destroyed when PAF jets bombarded and killed 15 militants, the official said.
Foreign militants reportedly from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Chechnya (Russia) and Tajikistan were targeted in the surgical strikes mainly launched in the four villages of Mir Ali-Khushali, Aidak, Khasokhel and Haiderkhel. “These villages have become the den of militancy. Air sorties are launched to neutralise the militants,” a PAF official told this scribe. Apart from six sorties in Mir Ali, three were conducted in Bara, he added.
Perceived as the start of a military operation against the militants in Fata, the surgical strikes, according to security officials, would be stretched to Miranshah (NWA) and Mohmand Agency considering the operational requirements. Ground reinforcements would be deployed later, it is further learnt.
In its latest humanitarian update issued Thursday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said nearly all the 22,000 people who fled their villages in NWA in January fearing security operations have returned home. “While the situation in North Waziristan has since deescalated, apprehension remains over possible future security operations,” the update said.
Talking to The Nation, Political Agent NWA Siraj Ahmad Khan claimed no collateral damage was reported from the tribal agency in the aerial attacks. “According to the information shared with me, the attacks were launched with high accuracy and pinpoint precision and there were no civilian deaths.” The civilian population from the troubled areas had already been moved to the nearby areas, mainly Bannu, he said. “Since the assaults have been conducted in concentrated areas, the displacements do not presently exceed 1,500 from the four villages of Mir Ali.”
Requesting anonymity, a senior intelligence source involved in counter-terrorism operations said the foreign militants killed in the aerial strikes had links with some elements in Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) had assured the Pakistan Army of complete support to net the miscreants who were expected to flee to the other side of the border to avoid military operation, he said.
Regarding expected displacements from NWA, the official said over 20,000 people had migrated from NWA to Bannu and adjoining areas when the military and PAF had launched air strikes last month. “The number would roughly be between 20,000 and 25,000 when the aerial assaults are to be stretched across Mir Ali and Miranshah.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the Commander CENTCOM General Lloyd J Austin and COAS Genl Raheel Sharif had reiterated joint cooperation to net the runway militants who were likely to escape to the Afghan side of the border to avoid military action in Fata.
The reported decision to offer befitting retaliation in case of aggression from the TTP was taken in the 169th Corps Commanders Conference held on February 10.