Another humanitarian crisis is looming, as thousands of people flee fierce fighting which has broken out as Pakistan’s army launches an air and ground offensive against Taliban militants in the South Waziristan area.
Local officials said 30,000 troops, backed by artillery, had moved into the region where Pakistan Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud is based.
Officials said the Taliban were resisting as troops mobilised from the north, east, and west.
A curfew was imposed in the region before the offensive began.
There have been several co-ordinated Taliban attacks in recent days, killing more than 150 people in several Pakistan cities.
Local officials said there were dozens of casualties as both sides used heavy weapons.
The bodies of three Pakistan soldiers were taken to the northern town of Razmak.
Nearly all communications in the region were down after the Taliban destroyed a telecommunications tower at Tiarza, local officials said.
Local officials and witnesses said there had been aerial bombardments in the Makeen area, a stronghold of the Mehsud tribe and a key army target.
One eyewitness from Makeen town described the onset of fighting.
“We heard the sounds of planes and helicopters early Saturday. Then we heard blasts. We are also hearing gunshots and it seems the army is exchanging fire with Taliban,” Ajmal Khan told the Associated Press news agency by telephone.
The ground operation comes after weeks of air and artillery strikes against militant targets in the region, which lies close to the Afghan border.
Thousands of civilians have fled South Waziristan in anticipation of the offensive.
Transport has been difficult as roads have been blocked by the military.
There is a huge army presence on the road between Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, says the BBC’s Islamabad correspondent Shoaib Hasan, near South Waziristan.
On his way to South Waziristan, he passed several army convoys on the road.
There has been no comment from the Pakistan military yet.
The mobilisation came a day after Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani held a meeting of the country’s senior political and military leadership.
Recent militant attacks were seen as an attempt to divide public opinion, but they appear to have strengthened the resolve of the government, which says the Taliban must now be eliminated, our correspondent added.
The army has been massing troops near the militants’ stronghold for months – ever since the Governor of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province announced a ground offensive in South Waziristan on 15 June.
Pakistan’s government has been under considerable pressure from the US to tackle militancy there.
North and South Waziristan form a lethal militant belt from where insurgents have launched attacks across north-west Pakistan as well as into parts of eastern Afghanistan.
South Waziristan is considered to be the first significant sanctuary for Islamic militants outside Afghanistan since 9/11.
It also has numerous training camps for suicide bombers.
It is clear that, like the Pakistan army’s offensive against militants in the Swat Valley earlier this year, many ordinary civilians will be displaced, injured, or even killed, in this latest round of fighting. Many may not be able to return to their homes for several months, and with winter approaching they will need all the help they can get.
For background context, see the video below: