ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistan army said on Monday it had launched an air and ground offensive in Kurram region on the Afghan border, its first major military operation since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden.
Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas gave few details of the operation in Kurram — a tribal region that had become increasingly used as a refuge for al Qaeda-linked militants.
But he said the offensive aimed to reopen the road to Parachinar, a Shi’ite town on the Afghan border that had been virtually cut off from the rest of Pakistan for years and was facing increasing attacks from Sunni Islamist militants.
“The operation has been launched with the aim of clearing the region of militants who have indulged in kidnapping and suicide attacks on security installations and forces there,” Abbas said.
The offensive came days after a senior militant commander in Kurram deserted from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Pakistani Taliban.
Commander Fazal Saeed Haqqani said he disagreed with attacks on Pakistani security forces and civilians.
The Afghan Taliban faction, the Haqqani network, had been involved in securing a peace deal for Kurram last year between militants and local Shi’ite tribesmen, security officials and tribesmen said at the time.
But that deal fell apart as locals complained of growing attacks and isolation from the rest of the country.
With army convoys traveling between Parachinar and the provincial capital, Peshawar, even coming under attack, local people had been forced to travel in and out via Afghanistan.
Many militants had taken refuge in Kurram fleeing either U.S. drone bomb attacks in neighboring North Waziristan or Pakistan military operations elsewhere.
“I think Kurram had become a black spot for the Pakistan army,” security analyst Imtiaz Gul said.
“People have been mostly using Afghanistan for getting to and from Parachinar, and there’s been a lot of killings going on between the Sunnis and the Shi’as. So probably they think it’s about time to do something.”
Kurram is strategically important for Pakistan, the militants and the United States.
It lies opposite Afghanistan’s Paktia, Nangarhar and Khost provinces and is next door to North Waziristan, the main base of al Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan.
Parachinar is just over the mountains from Tora Bora, Afghanistan, which U.S. and Afghan forces assaulted after the September 11, 2001, attacks in pursuit of bin Laden.
Pakistani forces have launched many offensives in the northwest against militants, but have failed to weaken their resolve.
Since bin Laden’s death, the TTP has carried out suicide bombings, assaulting a naval base in Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, and deploying hundreds of fighters in large-scale attacks on security forces.
The United States has been pushing Pakistan to step up its fight against militants since American special forces found and killed bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.
Washington had in particular pressed Pakistan to target the Haqqani network, which has deployed a formidable fighting force in eastern Afghanistan.
The Pakistan army had said it would give priority to targeting militants killing its own people.
The isolation of Parachinar had been attracting increasing media attention in recent weeks and local tribesmen had staged several demonstrations last month in front of parliament in Islamabad.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway; Editing by Myra MacDonald