(Reuters) - Pakistan’s army began on Saturday a ground operation against Pakistani Taliban militants in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, a senior government official said.
The government in June ordered the army to launch an offensive in South Waziristan. The military has since been conducting air and artillery strikes to soften up the militants’ defenses and blockading the region.
Here are some facts about South Waziristan:
South Waziristan has an area of about 6,620 square km (2,550 square miles). It borders Afghanistan to the west, North Waziristan to the north, North West Frontier Province to the east and Baluchistan province to the south. Its main town is Wana. It is an arid land of mountains pocked by dried-up creeks, along with sparse forests and rocky plains.
THE PEOPLE South Waziristan has an estimated population of about 500,000, according to the most recent figures, mostly ethnic Pashtuns. Pashtuns are in general religiously conservative and have a reputation for being fiercely independent and hostile to outside interference. But they also noted for being hospitable and protective of visitors. The Pashtuns are divided into tribes, with the main ones in South Waziristan being the Mehsuds, from whom the Taliban draw much support, and the Wazirs. Tribes are divided into sub-tribes or clans. THE FIGHTING
The main Pakistani Taliban bastion is a wedge of territory in a Mehsud tribe region, beginning to the northeast of Wana, to the south of Razmak, on the border with North Waziristan, and to the northwest of Jandola, on the border with North West Frontier Province. The Pakistani Taliban heartland does not border Afghanistan.
The army has launched brief offensives there before, the first in 2004 when it suffered heavy casualties before striking a peace pact. This time, the army has spent months preparing and it says it has encircled the main Pakistani Taliban zone.
The army says about 28,000 soldiers are in place to take on an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban. The Taliban forces include about 1,000 Uzbek militants, who have a reputation for being ruthless fighters, some al Qaeda Arabs and even a handful of militants from Western countries.
The army is likely to attack from three directions, with ground troops backed by jets, attack helicopters, tanks and artillery.
The militants have had years to prepare their defences and hold rifles, machineguns, anti-tank weapons, especially rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and longer-range rockets.
They are also experts in the use of roadside bombs and have been churning out a stream of suicide bombers.
The army has been trying to isolate the Pakistani Taliban in their stronghold and will be hoping other militant factions, including a Wazir-dominated faction led by commander Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan, and other factions in North Waziristan will stay out of the battle.
Writing by Robert Birsel, Editing by Ron Popeski