Islamabad: The Pakistani army expects Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in the South Waziristan tribal region to put up "tough resistance" against a military offensive, the army`s chief spokesman said.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas also confirmed earlier reports that the military has completed preparations for what could be one of the most important operations against militants in Pakistan since 2001. South Waziristan is considered al-Qaida and the Taliban`s major stronghold in the lawless northwest region bordering Afghanistan.
Abbas did not give a start date, but the way he referred to the operation suggested a decision had been made to launch one.
"God willing, peace will again be restored in the area through a successful operation," he told the ARY news channel in an interview that aired Tuesday and Wednesday.
Abbas did not say what kind of operation may be in the works — a limited one relying mostly on air power or a fully fledged offensive with thousands of ground troops aimed at clearing, then holding the whole region. The army abandoned early offensives and signed peace deals with militants in Waziristan after they put up a fierce fight.
Moving forcefully into South Waziristan is likely to gain praise from the United States. U.S. officials have long pressed Pakistan to eliminate safe havens on its soil used by militants to plan attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
An operation in South Waziristan will face steep challenges, ranging from harsh terrain to well dug-in militants.
Pakistan`s military said months ago it was planning an operation aimed at eliminating Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief, in South Waziristan. But the U.S. killed Mehsud in a missile strike in August, and since then, there have been lingering questions over whether Pakistan would try to dismantle the rest of his network there.
Analysts say 10,000 well-armed militants, including foreign fighters, are in the region.
Abbas said the army had already tried to weaken the militants by surrounding them, blocking roads and targeting them through air strikes. The point was to weaken the militants before launching a full-scale offensive against them.
"As we all know, this group and this organization has fighters and they will offer a tough resistance in this area," Abbas said.
On Tuesday, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at the World Food Program headquarters in Islamabad that killed five people. The attack Monday prompted the U.N. to temporarily shut all its offices across the country.
The United States and other Western nations have been heartened by the army`s recent offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley, but questions remain over the country`s overall commitment to the fight against militants it once nurtured for proxy wars in India and Afghanistan.