Pakistan's military said clashes in areas bordering North and South Waziristan do not yet represent the opening of a new war front against Taliban militants. But the military says such an offensive may come soon, and that in the meantime it is working to restore destroyed towns in Swat Valley for the return of more than 2.5 million displaced people.
Pakistan's army said it is targeting militants in several areas near the country's Waziristan tribal region, killing scores of Taliban fighters who officials say were preparing to stage terrorist attacks.
Top military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said the army went on the offensive because troops were being attacked in Bannu and Jani Khel district, both well-known militant strongholds.
"This Jani Khel area is very notorious for criminal activities. All those who were kidnapped from major cities, like Peshawar, for ransom they almost always ended up in Jani Khel," he said. "The cadets who were hijacked from Razmak Cadet College, they were kidnapped from Jani Khel. So, therefore the government warned them [the militants] and since they did not hand over the criminals who were responsible for this, the government decided to target this area," he added.
There has been speculation the army would soon turn its attention to Waziristan, where top Taliban leader Baitullah Mesud is widely thought to be based. And while the military is not ruling out a future military offensive there, Abbas said, right now, the army's focus is in Swat Valley.
"First we have to clear up Swat because that's very important for the military and the government - to bring this operation to a logical conclusion. And it would also require chasing the militant leaders. So, therefore we are waiting for this first operation to conclude and then, yes, maybe if the government decides, Waziristan will come next," he said.
The army officially began its offensive in the Swat Valley just over a month ago after militants loyal to radical Islamic cleric Sufi Mohammed violated a peace deal and advanced to within 100 kilometers of the capital, Islamabad. The army has recaptured territory, including Swat's main town, Mingora. But the operation has created a humanitarian crisis, displacing more than 2.5 million people.
Military spokesman Abbas said since the army has successfully cleared major areas of Swat, it is now trying to rebuild war-battered areas so displaced Pakistanis, commonly called IDPs, can go home.
"The administration is working on a war footing to restore the electricity, water and gas arrangements before the IDPs can return. We will not wait for the entire valley to be secured and then declare the victory. We will allow the IDPs to return in sequence," he said. "We will not allow the IDPs to return in bulk. But the moment the towns are cleared and secured and declared fit by the administration, we will allow the IDPs to return," said Abbas.
The return of Swat residents to their homes is considered key to maintaining a recent loss of public sympathy for the Taliban. Top Pakistani and U.S. officials say they are deeply concerned that those who have suffered the most as a result of the fighting in Swat may begin to resent the Pakistani government as they continue living day after day in tent cities in the sweltering heat.