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Pakistan Starts Ground Offensive in Militant Stronghold

FILE - Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan.
FILE - Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan.

Pakistan’s military says it has launched a long anticipated ground offensive in a remote valley near the Afghan border to flush out local and foreign militants holed up there.

The Shawal valley in North Waziristan tribal district is the last stronghold of militants in the border region, say authorities. The mountainous terrain and thick forests had long prevented ground troops from undertaking military action.

Until now, the army relied on air strikes to target suspected hideouts in Shawal.

The army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has directed his forces to achieve “military objectives as soon as possible,” army spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa said in his Twitter post late Thursday.

Pakistani fighter planes have been bombing militant hideouts in Shawal for nearly a week, killing scores of insurgents, according to military officials. The conflict zone, however, is not accessible for reporters and aid workers, making it difficult to verify official claims.

The valley has also been an al-Qaida sanctuary, and U.S. drone aircraft this year have carried out missile attacks against suspected militant positions there.

The North Waziristan territory used to be a stronghold for militants allied to Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency, including the Haqqani network.

Under pressure from the Afghan government and the United States, Pakistan’s military launched a large-scale air and ground offensive in the Waziristan area in June 2014, dubbed as Zarb-e-Azb.

Most of the area has been cleared of insurgents and the writ of the government has been established, according to military officials. They also say more than 3,000 fighters have been killed while as many as 400 soldiers have also died during offensive-related activities.

U.S. officials acknowledge the operation has dismantled terrorist infrastructure but suspect the Haqqani network, with alleged links to Pakistan's spy agency, has been spared - charges Islamabad again denied on Thursday.

Afghan and U.S. commanders say fighters linked to the Haqqani network are behind a recent wave of suicide and other bombings in and around Kabul.