DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — Thousands of civilians fleeing a military offensive in Pakistan's rugged South Waziristan are reporting heavy aerial bombardments as the Pakistani army closes in on Pakistani Taliban strongholds.
The army said Monday that 78 militants and nine soldiers had been killed since the long-awaited offensive began Saturday, a battle that's likely to shape Pakistan's struggle against Islamic extremism and also could have a far-reaching impact on global terrorism.
Some have suggested that the 30,000 troops in the offensive are insufficient, but the chief army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said that, "We're very confident that with these resources, we'll be able to complete the operation."
The Pakistanis, however, aren't attacking Taliban and other militants who're attacking U.S., Afghan and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Abbas confirmed that Pakistani authorities have an "understanding" with two Taliban factions based in Waziristan, led by warlords Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadur, who're fighting in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan.
"There was an understanding with them that they will not interfere in this war," Abbas said. "There is always a strategy to isolate your main target." He added that people "sometimes have to talk to the devil in this regard."
U.S. officials have been pressing the Pakistanis to stop distinguishing between militant groups that are targeting their country and those that are active in Afghanistan, arguing that many of the groups share sources of financing, training and arms, and that militants sometimes move among the groups.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met separately Monday in Islamabad with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief of staff.
The official Pakistani news agency reported that Gilani urged the U.S. to accelerate deliveries of military and economic aid. The U.S. has provided Pakistan with night-vision devices and other equipment, but a senior American defense official told McClatchy on Monday that the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan isn't directly supporting or coordinating with the Pakistani operation, merely "observing."
Past Pakistani military operations against the Taliban in South Waziristan have been limited or incomplete, breeding skepticism among the population. Those now fleeing the area, however, said the army appeared to be serious this time.
"There was never so much bombing before," said one man who arrived in Dera Ismail Khan from Makeen and was too frightened to give his name. "God willing, this problem of the Taliban will now be finished."
People fleeing the fighting report thunderous aerial attacks and shelling on the Taliban strongholds of Makeen, Tiarza and Ladha. Some said that the shelling had hit civilian homes, but it wasn't possible to verify such claims.
Pakistani ground troops are attacking the territory of the main Pakistani Taliban group, led by Hakimullah Mehsud, from three sides. Troops will converge on the Makeen and Ladha areas, the "capital" of the Pakistani Taliban, from Razmak in the north, Wana to the southwest and Jandola to the southeast.
There are rumors that Mehsud has escaped south to the province of Baluchistan, home to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the head of the Afghan Taliban, or across the border into Afghanistan, leaving his 10,000 militants commanded by his deputy, Waliur Rehman.
Abbas said in Islamabad that the Mehsud territory didn't border Afghanistan, so "There's no possibility of anyone escaping."
In Dera Ismail Khan and Tank, the two towns on the edge of South Waziristan, some 45,000 people have been registered as displaced in the last few days, adding to around 135,000 who'd registered with the authorities in recent weeks, local officials said.
The refugees are being offered no food, blankets or other aid, however, no camps have been set up for them and resentment against the government and army is growing fast. The government halted aid in September, apparently in an attempt to prevent it from making its way into the hands of the Taliban. People started leaving South Waziristan in June, when the military began aerial attacks.
"Our relatives here may be able to feed us and keep us for a month or two, but what happens after that?" said Mohammad Nawaz, who left the Tiarza area of South Waziristan, a Taliban hotbed, for Dera Ismail Khan. "Before the operation, it was peaceful. We just want peace."
Jalat Khan, a laborer who recently arrived in Dera Ismail Khan from South Waziristan, said, "The Taliban don't say anything to us; they have a problem with the government, not us."
The journey takes three to four days, mostly on foot, with large extended families -- including women, children and the elderly -- climbing over mountains to reach safety. Many complained that they were harassed or robbed by the rival Bhittany tribe as they exited South Waziristan at the town of Tank. Local warlord Turkistan Bhittany is allied with the government against the Taliban.
"It is the government that bombs us, and Bhittany who loot us on our way out," Khan said.
As winter approaches, those escaping are dependent on friends and relatives in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank to put them up, but aid workers warned that the spare room in these towns is "saturated."
During the anti-Taliban operation in Pakistan's Swat valley earlier this year, when some 2 million civilians fled their homes to escape the fighting, more than a dozen huge camps were established, and the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations were present to help. Because of the risky security situation near South Waziristan, however, international aid groups aren't being allowed close to the war zone.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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