ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Pakistan's military has released new details about airstrikes it launched Monday in North Waziristan amid fresh militant violence that has targeted the national anti-polio campaign.
Pakistani warplanes are reported to have continued bombing suspected militant hideouts in the North Waziristan tribal district, a hub for local and foreign militants linked to al-Qaida.
Military sources on Wednesday said that 33 Uzbekistan nationals and three Germans are among the militants killed in the airstrikes. They say that several terrorist commanders are among the dead.
The fighting reportedly has caused civilian casualties and forced residents to flee. Independent accounts are difficult to obtain from Waziristan, though, because of a lack of access and weak communication links with the rest of the country.
Army sources say the offensive is meant to punish those behind recent suicide bombings and other deadly terrorist attacks that mostly killed Pakistani troops.
The United States and Pakistani critics have long demanded an offensive in North Waziristan because they believe it is a source of terrorist attacks in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.
However, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government and the military dismiss reports that a full-scale offensive is underway. They describe the air strikes as a “surgical” operation.
Khan opposes military action
Imran Khan, a key opposition politician who opposes the use of military force to fight militancy, told VOA the Waziristan action could intensify terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
“It looks like an operation is starting. I have no idea what is happening, we don’t know what the facts are," said Khan. "Agreed that the situation is difficult to hold peace talks with the other side, also because of the bomb blasts, but at least we should all be taken into confidence.”
Sharif has long insisted he wants to use negotiations to end the militancy plaguing Pakistan, saying that army operations alone cannot solve the problem permanently.
Almost all political parties support government efforts to hold peace negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, but deadly terrorist incidents in recent days apparently have increased pressure to undertake decisive action against the militants.
In addition, attacks on polio vaccination teams and their guards continue in Pakistan, one of only three countries where the crippling disease is endemic.
On Wednesday, officials say a remote-controlled bomb struck a group of policemen protecting an anti-polio team in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The explosion killed six police personnel and a child.
Khan, whose Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party governs the province, condemned the violence. He said the attacks will not deter the anti-polio program.
"On the 26th [of January], we are doing a massive anti-polio campaign in [Khyber] Pakhtunkhwa," said Khan. "I am heading it and you know this is a serious issue for Pakistanis. And it is very sad that since CIA used a health worker, we have had 32 people killed, 22 polio workers and 10 policemen guarding them. It has really impacted this whole anti-polio campaign in Pakistan.”
Militants in Pakistan oppose the immunization campaign, saying it is being used to gather intelligence on their locations while some Islamist groups say the vaccine is meant to sterilize Muslims.
A Pakistani doctor, Shakeel Afridi, ran a fake vaccination program at the behest of the U.S. government that helped it locate and kill the terror mastermind, Osama bin Laden, in 2011. Pakistani authorities arrested Afridi and a court has sentenced him to 33 years in prison on treason charges. The issue is at the center of tensions between Washington and Islamabad.