ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Pakistan's army said Monday it was waiting for government orders to launch a strike against Taliban strongholds in the northwest tribal belt after a brazen hostage siege left 19 people dead.
Pakistani soldiers patrol outside the main gate of army headquarters during an encounter with militants in Rawalpindi on October 11 (AFP photo)
Suspected Taliban-linked gunmen staged an audacious day-time raid on the military nerve centre near Islamabad on Saturday, shooting their way into a building and barricading themselves inside with 42 hostages.
In total, eight militants, eight soldiers and three hostages were killed in the crisis that unfolded at the heart of the military establishment in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, which ended with a commando raid Sunday.
The army claimed success in an offensive against the Taliban earlier this year in the one-time tourist paradise of northwest Swat valley, but a wave of attacks in the past week show the Islamist threat is far from quashed.
Now the pressure is on the follow up the Swat push with a full-fledged operation on the Taliban bastions of North and South Waziristan, in a tribal region outside direct government authority and a known Al-Qaeda bolthole.
Military and government officials have been saying for months that they will attack the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) movement in their stronghold, but despite sporadic air strikes, no timeframe has been set.
"The army is fully prepared to launch an operation against Tehreek-e-Taliban," said a military spokesman.
"We are waiting for government orders. The government will formally announce the launching of an operation. The government has decided in principle to launch an operation against Taliban in Waziristan."
Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said that recent attacks -- including a car bomb killing 52 people in Peshawar city -- may speed up their assault on the area, and local officials said they were readying for the offensive. Related article: Devastating Peshawar bomb blast
"An operation against the Taliban in Waziristan is a must," Syed Shahab Ali Shah, the top administrative official of South Waziristan, told AFP,
"According to my information the government has decided to launch an operation against Waziristan's Taliban, but I do not know about the actual date," he added.
Washington has also been pressuring Islamabad to stamp out militant sanctuaries, alleging that Islamist extremists are using the tribal belt as a base to plot attacks against the West and target foreign troops in Afghanistan. Related article: Clinton confident on Pakistan nukes
"An entire international community that includes the US, India, and China wants Pakistan to take the battle to the (headquarters) of the Taliban in South Waziristan," local newspaper The Daily Times said in an editorial.
"This attack, from what it appears, is likely to hasten the process and we should expect forces to start moving on the ground by the end of the month," it said, adding that the strike would likely start before winter sets in.
An editorial in the English-language daily The News, meanwhile, said: "The time for a decisive push into the heartland of TTP has come. The organisation has already demonstrated it is far from a spent force.
"It has in fact struck back with a vengeance."
Analysts say, however, that an operation in Waziristan will be a tougher task then flushing militants out of Swat, with the Taliban entrenched in a hostile terrain and able to slip easily across the Afghan frontier.