ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s prime minister backtracked on earlier comments on Saturday that a military campaign against the Taliban in their South Waziristan bastion had ended, saying the offensive was continuing.
In televised comments from the eastern city of Lahore, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told reporters the military operation in South Waziristan had concluded and that the army may now shift focus to the Orakzai tribal region where militants are believed to have fled.
But Gilani later said though the army had captured Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan, the offensive had not yet ended.
“I may have said it in a different context,” he told reporters in the city of Karachi in comments broadcast live by state-run television.
“Our army operation in South Waziristan is going on quite successfully ... and I can’t tell any timeline (for its conclusion).”
Anti-militant offensives are handled by Pakistan’s powerful army which has been reluctant to set any timeframe for such campaigns. The operation in South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan, was the army’s biggest in years involving 30,000 troops.
Pakistan’s military says 589 militants and 79 soldiers have been killed in the South Waziristan campaign since it was launched in mid-October. Militants have hit back with bombings that have killed hundreds of people.
Security officials say many of the militants are believed to have fled South Wazirstan to Orakzai, North Waziristan and the Kurram tribal areas.
Orakzai is believed to be the base of Hakimullah Mehsoud, leader of Pakistani Taliban insurgents, and is part of Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt on the Afghan border, which is seen as a global hub for al Qaeda and other militant groups. The United States wants Pakistan to tackle them to help its war effort in Afghanistan.
Intelligence officials say paramilitary forces have been cracking down on militants in Orakzai for several weeks. War planes also often attack militant targets.
Gilani, in his remarks in Lahore, hinted the army might launch a full-scale offensive in Orakzai, but he later said this would be done only if needed.
“If we felt there was a need, then we might take military operations in Orakzai and other areas against the militants who have fled,” he said.
U.S. attempts to push Pakistan to root out Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, as well as American drone aircraft attacks on suspected militants, have created intense anti-American sentiments in Pakistan and raised political tensions.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said victory in Afghanistan will only be possible with strong Pakistani cooperation and stronger efforts to wipe out militant sanctuaries there.
Pakistani officials fear his plans to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan will push militants over the border and create new troubles for the government, which also faces the task of trying to improve an economy damaged by security fears.
U.S. ally Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is fighting for his political survival so he may not be in a position to persuade the powerful military to focus on border areas while it tries to stamp out the Taliban insurgency.
Militants demonstrated their resilience with an attack by suicide bombers and gunmen that killed at least 40 people near Pakistan’s military headquarters on December 4.
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Janet Lawrence