Pakistan

Pakistan: Civilians fleeing South Waziristan to 'safety'

DERA ISMAIL KHAN

Hundreds of civilians were fleeing al-Qaeda and the Taliban's main stronghold in northwest Pakistan after the army and militants asked them to leave, a tribal elder and a witness said Monday, a sign the military could be poised to launch an offensive.

Pakistan has vowed to root out militants in the northwest, many of whom allegedly use the mountainous tribal areas along the border as a base for attacks on American and Nato troops in Afghanistan.

Jets have bombed targets in the stronghold of Waziristan in recent months, but the military has said it would launch full-scale ground operations at the 'appropriate' time.

Authorities could not be reached Monday for comment.

Residents said recent days have shown an increase in the number of people leaving the Makeen and Ladha areas of South Waziristan, though many have been fleeing to the relative safety of nearby towns for months.

'People are leaving the area for their safety,' tribal elder Maulana Hassamuddin told The Associated Press by phone. He said the military had urged people to leave in the past few days, so he did.

Resident Amirullah said the Taliban had also asked locals to flee. He said he and his friends rented a vehicle to take them to the town of Bannu for more than double the normal price.

Western countries were cheered by a military offensive in the nearby Swat Valley earlier this year. Pakistan's army has moved into the tribal region close to the Afghan border before, however, only to be beaten into a stalemate.

Analysts have questioned whether the army has enough troops, or the will, to take on the militants in Waziristan, where they are well established and heavily armed.

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