Pakistani military commanders said the army’s ongoing offensive against terrorist groups in North Waziristan is “progressing well,” but also that they have found signs of foreign operatives working in the area.
At the region’s administrative center in Miranshah, where the Pakistani Taliban was headquartered, the army said it has found traces of foreign al-Qaida operatives, as well as the anti-China East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The Pakistan army, which launched its counter-terrorism offensive nearly a month ago, flew journalists to Miranshah this week to showcase the gains it has made so far.
Major-General Zafarullah Khan, operation commander, said troops have inflicted heavy losses on militants and the mission remains aimed at regaining government control over the entire North Waziristan territory.
The area “was no doubt the epicenter of terrorism. It was the nerve center, logistics and communication base for all terrorist groups and their activities,” Khan said.
“There was a presence of large number of local and foreign terrorists of all creeds and colors. This place was also used to an extent for indoctrinating the minds of raw youth for suicide missions,” he added.
After months of signals from the military that it planned a large offensive in North Waziristan, aerial bombardment began in mid-June.
About 800,000 people have reportedly fled the region for temporary camps in nearby towns, where the army and aid groups are assisting the government in dealing with the humanitarian crisis.
Khan said that although most of the territory around Miranshah has been cleared of extremists, advancing troops face a daunting task of clearing a huge amount of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
He said the troops have found about a dozen bomb-making facilities and an underground network of tunnels.
Khan said soldiers also found terrorist media production centers as well as arms caches.
“The enormity of the task at hand is such that it is going to take time to clear the town of the IEDs. More than 23 tons of prepared IEDs are there in a area of about 1.5 by 1 kilometer,” Khan said.
Critics of the offensive have claimed that by giving ample warning ahead of the offensive, many militants have escaped. But Khan said all efforts are being made to prevent that from happening, unlike previous army actions in tribal districts adjacent to North Waziristan.
Khan said that while efforts were made to seal the area and limit the movement of militants, some may have fled the area.
He claimed that there have been no civilian deaths so far, in either airstrikes or the ground offensive.
There are no independent monitors to verify his claim.
Khan said it will be premature to speculate on the exact number of terrorists killed or whether most of them have escaped to nearby tribal areas or across the Afghan border.
Reporters were given a tour of the main market of Miranshah and surrounding streets.
The once bustling city now looks like a ghost town where the only residents besides the Pakistani soldiers appeared to be a donkey and a couple of stray dogs searching for food in the garbage.
A large number of shop doors were half open, suggesting workers quickly left the area to escape army shelling.
Lieutenant Colonel Wajjaht briefed reporters while standing inside a bomb-making facility.
“We can easily call it an IED factory, a large sort of shed in which you can see the cylinders in abundance,” Wajjaht said. “There numbers are over 700 - half of them filled, half of them are ready to be filed. Basically, these are the vehicle-born IEDS, most of them.”
In addition to al-Qaida foreign operatives and the Haqqani Network of Afghan insurgents, the Waziristan region has long hosted anti-China and Islamist militants from Uzbekistan.
The Haqqani militants have conducted high-profile attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan but Pakistan until now resisted pressure to go after these extremists because it is widely perceived they have links with the Pakistani spy agency.
Army spokesman Major-General Asim Bajwa said the ongoing offensive is aimed at eliminating terrorist sanctuaries in the region.
"We are targeting terrorists of all hue and color, all local and foreign terrorists who are there and we will not allow our soil to be used for terrorist activities anywhere,” Bajwa said.
For the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the fighting, it remains unclear when they may return home.
Army commanders in North Waziristan said they have not set a timeline to end the offensive.