Fighting raged into the night as Pakistani troops besieged suspected Al-Qaeda hideouts in the northwest tribal region bordering Afghanistan after trapping up to 50 foreign militants, officials said.
Three days of fighting in South Waziristan, a notorious hub for Al-Qaeda suspects, had left at least 59 people dead as of late Friday, including 40 militants, 16 soldiers and three civilians, according to military.
The fighting began after foreign militants launched pre-dawn attacks on army posts on Wednesday, killing 15 soldiers.
Thousands of Pakistani troops backed by Cobra helicopter gunships targetted a training camp and two Al-Qaeda hideouts in South Waziristan, military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan said.
The offensive has been focused on the outskirts of the Shakai valley, 25 kilometers (16 miles) west of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan where in late March the army’s largest ever operation in the war on terror ended in heavy losses with 46 soldiers killed.
Sixty-three militants were also killed in that operation, which was criticized for having not driven foreign fighters from the area.
Journalists have not been allowed access to the battle zone but Sultan offered some details at a news conference Friday evening with the help of slides of the three sites under assault in the region.
An Al-Qaeda run training center perched in the mountains away from populated areas is among the targets.
Sultan, showing satellite images of the camp marked “Al-Qaeda center for special training”, said the site was equipped with a firing range and other training facilities used to teach fighters how to carry out terrorist acts.
Another slide showed two buildings and a compound, which Sultan described as safe houses, allegedly used by Al-Qaeda fighters while traveling to other areas.
“Whenever there was a threat they could withdraw and retreat into these safe houses,” Sultan told AFP.
“These are the houses which are … well protected.”
Sultan said soldiers had already destroyed the house of local Al-Qaeda leader Eida Khan, which he said had been used by Al-Qaeda financier Abd Al-Hadi Al-Iraqi. It was not known whether Al-Iraqi was present when the compound was attacked.
The spokesman said Al-Iraqi used to meet militants in this house and provide them with funds to carry out their activities.
Sultan said security forces estimated up to 50 foreign fighters might have been in the area where the offensive was launched Friday.
Some 300 to 400 mainly Chechen and Uzbek Al-Qaeda-linked fighters are believed to be hiding in the region. Arabs and Chinese Uighurs are also said to be among them.
Residents in Wana said they heard gunfire and explosions until late Friday and earlier had heard the sound of helicopters.
Sultan said Friday’s offensive was in response to Wednesday’s deadly attack on the army posts, and gave an account of the killings he said were committed by the militants.
He said the attackers killed nine paramilitary Frontier Corps men and six regular soldiers in “cold blood”.
“They overpowered the Frontier Corps people … and they killed them in cold blood, they shot them in the forehead. They mutilated their dead bodies,” he said.
Sultan said the situation was “fluid” in an area where just seven weeks ago army commanders and tribal elders announced a truce and amnesty deal for militant fighters.
But the government accused “local facilitators” of derailing efforts to reach a non-military solution and said Wednesday’s attacks on the army posts were an “abuse of the government’s sincere offer” of amnesty.
“The government was left with no choice but to respond in order to establish its writ and eliminate these foreign elements,” it said.