The Pakistan Army launched a ground offensive in the North Waziristan tribal area on Monday, beginning a new phase in its operation against Taliban militants, officials said.

The troops moved on Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, at about 9:30am, after two weeks of air strikes and artillery bombardment on the insurgents’ targets, they said.

Washington has long urged Islamabad to tackle militant sanctuaries in North Waziristan, a haven for Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.

Security officials in Miranshah told AFP troops moved on the town after six hours of artillery shelling which began at 3:30am. “They are using tanks and armoured vehicles for ground movement. The forces have also taken over the civil hospital in Miranshah and have destroyed four hideouts in the artillery firing,” a security official said on the condition of anonymity.

Other security officials in Peshawar confirmed the advance. A statement from the Inter-Services Public Relations said the offensive began after the evacuation of all civil population and infantry troops are carrying out house-to-house searches.

The troops killed 15 militants in the ground attack while three soldiers were wounded in clashes, the military said. “The troops have recovered underground tunnels and IEDs preparation factories inside the cleared area. Bombs were also seized by the security forces,” the ISPR statement added.

“Meanwhile, integrated fire of artillery, tanks and other heavy weapons is being carried out on terrorist concentrations in Mirali and other areas. An effective cordon is in place at the other places housing terrorists,” the ISPR said.

Giving details of Zarb-e-Azb, the ISPR said that 376 suspected militants had so far been killed, 19 others had surrendered to the authorities and 61 suspected hideouts destroyed while 17 soldiers martyred since the operation commenced two weeks ago.

The facts and figures could not be independently verified as access to media is severely limited in the militancy-affected region.

Distribution of relief items for IDPs is in progress in Bannu, DI Khan and Tank. As many as 30,000 ration packs, each of 110kg, have been distributed so far.

The ISPR stated that 276 tons ration had been received by the 55 relief points established by the Pakistan Army in major cities of the country and was being transported to Bannu.

Moreover, 5,665 patients have been cured at the Army’s field medical hospital at Khalifa Gul Nawaz Hospital in Bannu.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said the operation will mark the beginning of an era of peace and tranquility, but the Taliban have vowed to strike back.

Nawaz Sharif, vowing to bring an end to the Taliban’s insurgency through dialogue, had pursued talks with the TTP since February to no avail.

A dramatic attack on the Karachi airport which killed dozens of people brought a sudden end to the peace process and sparked the military offensive.