October 3, 2009 / 11:20 AM / 10 years ago

Pakistan prepares assault, eyes Taliban infighting

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistani army is keeping up pressure on the Pakistani Taliban as it prepares for an offensive on their South Waziristan stronghold and awaits the outcome of infighting between factions, a army spokesman said on Saturday.

The government ordered the army to launch an offensive against Pakistani Taliban Baitullah Mehsud and his men in South Waziristan near the Afghan border in June.

Mehsud, accused of numerous bomb attacks across the country, was killed in a U.S. missile strike in August.

The security forces have been launching air strikes, while moving in troops, blockading the region and trying to split off factions.

“The operation is continuing through air targeting, squeezing the area — all the entry and exit routes have been blocked — and, of course, waiting for the result of the infighting for the succession,” military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said.

Mehsud’s killing threw the Taliban into disarray with rival factions vying to take control of the al Qaeda-linked Taliban Movement of Pakistan alliance of 13 militant factions.

Confusion surrounds who is in charge.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe the newly named leader of the militant alliance, Hakimullah Mehsud, might have been killed in a firefight with a rival faction soon after Mehsud’s death.

Abbas said some Pakistani security agencies had reported that Hakimullah was dead but there was no confirmation.

“It’s confusing because the area is sealed, there’s no free movement or credible intelligence presence inside,” Abbas said.

Abbas said two divisions, or up to 28,000 soldiers, were in place, enough to take on an estimated 10,000 hardcore Taliban.

Winter snow could arrive in late November, hampering military operations but Abbas said the weather was one of many factors that planners were taking into account.

“It’s a matter of the time which, of course, the military would not like to disclose or give any hint about,” he said.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Reuters in an interview last month that the government would take whatever action was necessary to flush out the Pakistani Taliban — who he described as the “front face of al Qaeda” — from the tribal areas.

U.S. PRESSURE

Speculation about an assault on South Waziristan is rising as the United States has been stepping up pressure on Pakistan to go after Afghan Taliban factions based in northwestern enclaves.

With Afghan violence reaching new heights, the United States is weighing options for how to deal with the insurgency eight years after driving the Taliban from power.

The U.S. commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said in an assessment leaked last week Afghan insurgent leaders were based in Pakistan.

Pakistan denies that but many analysts say Pakistan is acting only against militants which are a threat to itself, like the Pakistani Taliban, while leaving alone those focused on fighting in Afghanistan or on targeting India.

Meanwhile, soldiers and equipment have been moving toward the Taliban bastion in South Waziristan.

“There are large convoys passing through Wana almost every day,” said Said Wali a resident of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, where the military has a base.

A senior military official in South Waziristan said his men were ready. “We have made all preparations and are only waiting for an order,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Analysts say the ethnic Pashtun tribes in South Waziristan resent outsiders and a military offensive risks not only heavy casualties but a tribal uprising.

But the military official dismissed such fears saying many people opposed the militants.

“They want the terrorists out of their area,” he said.

Additional reporting by Hafiz Wazir; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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