The Pakistan army moved into a known stronghold of foreign al Qaeda militants near the Afghan border after a tribal militia battled the Islamist militants this week, residents and officials said on Saturday.
Ethnic Pashtun tribesmen in the South Waziristan region vowed last month to expel the foreign jihadists, most of them Uzbeks, from their lands. More than 200 foreigners and up to 50 tribal fighters have been killed in clashes since then, government officials say.
Pakistani troops were deployed on Friday evening in mountainous Shin Warsak, about 10 km (6 miles) west of South Waziristan’s main town of Wana.
The bodies of many Uzbeks littered the ground in the area and tribesmen used tractors to bury them.
Sporadic firing could be heard in the area, but most of the foreigners appeared to have fled.
The army moved into bunkers the foreign jihadists built in the mountains.
It was the first movement of Pakistani troops outside Wana in the tribal region since the government struck a peace deal with tribal elders in February 2005.
Military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said the troops moved into Shin Warsak to provide security to the people and were not involved in the fighting.
Shin Warsak, Azam Warsak and nearby villages saw heavy fighting in 2004 after the Pakistan army launched a major offensive against jihadists commanded by Tahir Yuldashev, head of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Yuldashev, who is accused of a series of bomb blasts in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in 1999, is at large but believed to be still in the region.
Residents say up to 1,200 Uzbeks were in the region. The Pashtuns refer to them as “gungas”, meaning “the dumb ones” because they can’t speak Pashto.
Clashes broke out in South Waziristan last month after Uzbek militants tried to kill a pro-government tribal elder.
Malik Saadullah Khan, a tribal elder involved in the campaign against foreign jihadists, said the tribesmen were committed to driving foreigners out of their lands.
“We are ready to give every sacrifice to get rid of these people,” he told Reuters.
Thousands of foreign fighters, including Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs, fled to Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal lands after U.S.-led forces defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.
After unsuccessful military campaigns to clear al Qaeda nests from Waziristan, the government made pacts with tribesmen in the hope of driving a wedge between them and the foreign fighters.
Critics say the pacts risked creating a sanctuary for al Qaeda and the Taliban, but the military said the clashes in South Waziristan showed the strategy was working.