ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Pakistani military operation launched in the country's northwest will clear the area of terrorists and keep it from being used as a safe haven by militant groups, officials said Tuesday.
Pakistani officials briefed foreign media about the operation started two weeks ago against militants in the North Waziristan tribal area, which is considered the stronghold of groups such as the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban. The long-awaited operation is being closely watched to see how aggressively Pakistan moves against the militants and whether the operation sparks a backlash of violence in the rest of the country.
"Once we are done with the operation in North Waziristan, there won't be a single terrorist," said military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa.
The U.S. has long urged Pakistan to send troops into North Waziristan because the region had become a safe haven for groups who attacked American and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. It's also become a hub for militants intent on overthrowing the Pakistani government who have used it as a base from which they've launched attacks on civilian and military targets across the country.
The U.S. has been especially concerned about the Haqqani network, which has been accused of carrying out some of the most deadly attacks in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have accused Pakistan in the past of supporting the militant group and others as a way to maintain influence in Afghanistan.
Since the operation was launched in North Waziristan, one of the questions has been whether the Pakistani military would go after all militant groups equally. Officials Tuesday said they would not discriminate.
"We will not permit anybody to use the soil of Pakistan against another country — Haqqani or no Haqqani," said the Minister of States and Frontier Regions, Abdul Qaudir Baloch.
Officials also called on neighboring Afghanistan to act against militants who attack Pakistan from Afghan soil, including the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Both countries have accused the other of harboring militants, but in recent months cross-border tensions have flared over accusations that Pakistani Taliban militants, including the leader of the group, are in northeastern Afghanistan.
"This has been raised at every level, that the leader of the TTP, Mullah Fazlullah is sitting across the border," said Bajwa, referring to the Pakistani Taliban's formal name — Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. "Afghanistan needs to do something about it."
The officials declined to give a timetable for how long the operation would last, but analysts have said it could be months.
Nearly half a million refugees fled North Waziristan in a mass exodus that has sparked accusations that the government was not prepared to deal with the humanitarian crisis. The United Nations reported Monday that almost 100,000 people have also fled from North Waziristan to neighboring Afghanistan.
Officials Tuesday at the briefing disputed those figures and said the numbers were lower but declined to give any specific figures.
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