Pakistani forces, backed by aerial support, are making progress in their second major offensive against the dreaded armed group Lashkar-e-Islam, or Army of Islam, in the country’s northern Khyber tribal area.
Lashkar-e-Islam is blamed for attacks against Pakistani security forces, tribal elders and polio vaccination teams in Khyber region, a key supply route to neighboring Afghanistan.
Lashkar’s chief Mangal Bagh is reportedly hiding somewhere in the region. Military officials said that Pakistani security forces have killed 148 militants since the offensive code named “Operation Khyber-I,” started in October. Dozens of their hideouts have also been destroyed in the operation. Officials said 250 terrorists, including the group’s spokesman Saifullah, and some top commanders have already surrendered to the security forces.
“The operation is continuing successfully,” military officials told the media on Tuesday after 13 terrorists, including some foreigners, were killed in latest precise aerial strikes in Khyber agency. The latest aerial attacks were carried out based on intelligence report about the presence of terrorists involved in the recent deadly Wahga border suicide attack that killed some 60 people.
The operation is part of Pakistan’s policy to take full control of all tribal areas to ward off any instability in the country in case fighting in Afghanistan would intensify after the withdrawal of NATO forces from the country by the end of this year. Pakistan is still fighting many foreign militants who have sneaked into the restive Waziristan tribal region after the US military launched attacks against the Taleban in late 2001.
Pakistani forces are establishing full military control over tribal areas in its borders with Afghanistan to thwart any attempt by the militants to cross to Pakistan. The security forces opened the second major front in Khyber agency at same time when the army is battling the Taleban militants in North Waziristan as the region is strategically important for the government and the militants.
The Pakistani Taleban, who were previously disallowed by Lashkar-e-Islam to operate in Khyber agency, have now announced that they would send fighters to help the group. The TTP chief, Maulvi Fazalullah, in a latest audio message asked his fighters to support Lashkar-e-Islam. But the announcement was seen merely as propaganda as the Pakistani Taleban are also fighting for their own survival.
The Taleban splinter group “TTP Jamaat-ul-Ahrar” also said its men are now joining the Lashkar-e-Islam against the Pakistani forces. The group’s spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, confirmed the death of a key commander, Abu Jandal, in airstrikes this week.
Security officials believed that most of the Taleban fighters who have fled from North Waziristan because of the military operations there are now hiding in parts of Khyber agency especially in Tirah Valley in the rugged mountains, which is still not under the control of the security forces. Lashkar-e-Islam and the Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan are believed to have control in most parts of Tirah Valley close to the Afghan border. The two militant groups had earlier “expelled” their armed opponents of the pro-government “Ansar-ul-Islam” from the area.
Security forces, who now control the hills surrounding Tirah Valley, are using fighter jets against the militants to clear the strategically important border regions. The policy has won widespread backing in the country and almost all political forces have agreed that it is about time to apply an iron-fist policy against the terrorists who have wrought havoc not just by killing innocent people but also in ruining the country’s economy.