Backed by helicopter gunships, the Pakistani military launched a new operation in a strategic tribal area that juts into Afghanistan and has become an important militant sanctuary, officials said Tuesday.
The operation in Kurram follows reports that one of the most feared militant groups fighting in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network, had reached a truce with local militants to use the area as transit point to launch attacks against NATO forces across the border.
But the military is more likely focused on Pakistani Taliban militants who have declared war against the state and have staged attacks against Pakistani security forces. Many analysts believe Pakistan is hesitant to target the Haqqani network _ as demanded by the U.S. _ because of historical ties to the group.
"A military operation in Kurram Agency has been launched to clear the area of terrorists involved in all kinds of terrorist activities, including kidnapping and killing of locals, suicide attacks and blocking the road connecting Lower with upper Kurram," said Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
The military has used helicopters to clear three areas of Kurram, but has not received much resistance or suffered any casualties, said Javed Ullah, one of the top government officials in Kurram.
"Today is the third day of this operation, which was launched on Sunday," said Ullah.
At least 400 families in central Kurram, where the operation is focused, have fled the area and registered with a government-run camp in lower Kurram, said Ullah. He estimated that thousands of families may have left the region, but many of them opted to stay with relatives rather than go to the camp.
The road through Kurram that the military is trying to clear is the only one connecting the remote tribal area to the main city in Pakistan's northwest, Peshawar. It has been blocked by rival Sunni Muslim militant groups.
Those Sunni groups have also been engaged in sectarian warfare with Shiite Muslims in Kurram. Local tribesmen said last year that members of the Haqqani network helped negotiate a truce between the two sides in exchange for safe passage through Kurram to Afghanistan from their sanctuary in neighboring North Waziristan.
A rare U.S. drone missile strike in Kurram last month that killed 12 people was reportedly targeting Haqqani militants and their allies in the area.
The Pakistani military's operation in Kurram may have benefited from the recent decision by a senior militant commander in the area, Fazal Saeed, to split with the Pakistani Taliban. Saeed, who is based in lower Kurram, criticized the Pakistani Taliban for attacks that killed innocent civilians and said he would only focus on fighting Afghan and foreign forces in Afghanistan.
Saeed is closely allied with the Haqqani network, which has also focused its attacks in Afghanistan rather than Pakistan _ one of the reasons why many analysts believe the Pakistani military is reluctant to target the group.
Also Tuesday, seven Pakistani soldiers were killed in a pair of roadside bomb attacks in different parts of the country.
The deadlier attack occurred in the Turbat area of Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province. A roadside bomb struck a security convoy, killing five troops and wounding five others, a spokesman for the paramilitary Frontier Corps said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to media on the record.
Baluchistan is the scene of a low-level insurgency by ethnic Baluch separatist who seek more autonomy for the province and a greater share of the wealth from its natural resources.
Earlier in the day, a roadside bomb hit an army vehicle in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, killing two soldiers and wounding roughly a dozen others, said Pakistan intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Associated Press Writers Hussain Afzal in Parachinar, Abdul Sattar in Quetta and Rasool Dawar in Peshawar contributed to this report.