Pakistani fighter jets pounded Taliban strongholds in the volatile South Waziristan tribal region on Friday as the death toll from the series of US drone attacks in the region rose to 13. The warplanes hit targets in preparation for a full scale military operation which Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar said would take off as soon as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud was spotted.
"We are looking for him... Once we know where he is, then we will not miss him because we have the F-16s. They are very precise, they have laser-guided bombs and they can work better than a drone," he claimed. The jets struck Taliban hideouts at Sarwakai, Madiyan and Barwang in South Waziristan Agency near the border with Afghanistan during early morning strikes, reports said. "Warplanes targetted the places where Mehsud's militants are active and we have unconfirmed reports of casualties," TV channels quoted military officials as saying.
"Eye witnesses were quoted as saying that Taliban dug out upto 13 bodies from the rubble, some of them, badly mutilated," local officials said. Upto three drones fired four missiles on a training school run by Taliban commander Malang Wazir in raids on Thursday. There were also reports of air strikes on militant positions at Landikotal in the troubled Khyber Agency. Ground forces targeted and destroyed several militant hideouts at Nawagai in Bajaur tribal region. Dozens of militants have been killed in recent operations by security forces in Bajaur.
Mukhtar told Dawn News channel that the "government has taken the principled stand that if Baitullah Mehsud hits us in some place in Pakistan, we will hit him... wherever he is hiding". Though he described the threat posed by Mehsud as "not very serious", Mukhtar said the local Taliban chief was "creating chaos in this country by sending suicide bombers". In reply to a question, he said the government did not have any information that Mehsud was "an agent of the Indiansor the Americans". "He is one of the miscreants as far as we know. He is fighting against the interests of Pakistan. So we have to watch our interests. This is our war," Mukhtar said. He said Mehsud was getting financial support from the "drug trade" and "people from all over the world" who were sending him money thinking he was fighting against the US. Taliban commanders from Waziristan who have broken away from Mehsud have claimed in recent days that he is being backed by India and the US.
Referring to the military offensive against Taliban in the northwestern Swat valley and nearby areas, Mukhtar said the operation in this region "has practically ended" and people displaced by the fighting would be allowed to return to their homes from June 20. The return of the displaced people would be completed within 90 days, he added. Meanwhile, militants blew up two schools on Friday in Bajaur Agency. No loss of life was reported in the two attacks. The number of schools destroyed by the Taliban in the semi-autonomous tribal region has now gone up to 49.