ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan launched a major military offensive Sunday in the restive tribal region that borders Afghanistan, targeting radical Islamist fighters affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups.
The military said 105 militants were killed as Pakistani jets pounded the hideouts of foreign and local fighters in North Waziristan. After the airstrikes, the Pakistan army swept into the area, sealing off at least two towns in an attempt to cripple an insurgency that has been blamed for the deaths of 50,000 Pakistanis over the past decade.
“A decisive war has begun against the terrorists,” Khwaja Muhammed Asif, Pakistan’s defense minister, said in a televised interview with Dunya News.
The Pakistani military has been threatening for months to unleash a large-scale military operation against the militants, who have launched increasingly bloody attacks. But the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif apparently held off from approving such an operation as he tried to engage the Taliban in peace talks.
That effort appeared to crumble in recent days as the Taliban attacked Karachi’s international airport, killing 26 people.
Military officials said Abu Abdur Rehman al-Maani, the alleged mastermind of the Karachi attack, was killed in Sunday’s bombardment, as were many Uzbek fighters. Pakistan’s government said Uzbek fighters played a major role in the airport attack. Some Islamist fighters from Uzbekistan have sought refuge in northwestern Pakistan and at times have coordinated with the Pakistani Taliban.
The Pakistani military’s chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, said in a statement Sunday that the armed forces had launched a “comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists” in North Waziristan.
“Our valiant armed forces have been tasked to eliminate these terrorists regardless of hue and color, along with their sanctuaries,” he said.
Officials said fighter jets struck six suspected compounds of Uzbek and local militants in the lawless tribal district.
One military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly, said there were reports that some of those killed in the raids were from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a separatist group established by Uighur militants in western China.
The Pakistani Taliban — also known by the initials TTP, for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan — is allied with but separate from the Afghan Taliban that is fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Elements of both, along with the Afghan Haqqani network and remnants of al-Qaeda’s core leadership, are located in North Waziristan.
“The government was left with no other option but to go after the base of the terrorists,” said Muhammed Saad, a retired Pakistani military officer. “North Waziristan has become the center of gravity for terrorists, and almost every attack was found to have a link to the area.”
But the decision to undertake a comprehensive military operation, which appears to be Pakistan’s largest domestic security sweep since a 2009 military campaign dislodged Taliban fighters from the country’s western Swat Valley, is not without risk.
For months, Sharif and security officials have warned that a military campaign probably would lead to retaliatory strikes against major Pakistani cities, including the capital, Islamabad. There is also the risk that civilian casualties could undercut public support for the military campaign.
In a statement, the Pakistani military said “announcements would be made” regarding whom to evacuate to Miralia and Miranshah, two major towns in North Waziristan at the center of the military operation. Officials were preparing to house the evacuees in refugee camps. Noor Rehman, a tribal council member, said about 47,000 people have fled.
“We want to resolve the issue through peace, but last week’s unfortunate attack on the airport and now the airstrikes by security forces created hurdles,” he said.
Military officials have established “surrender points” where militants can lay down their arms peacefully.
Pakistan has asked the Afghan National Army to seal its side of the border to try to keep militants from escaping into Afghan territory. But it was not clear Sunday evening whether the army had agreed to the request.
Hassan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani security analyst, said he thinks the military operation will be relatively brief and aimed exclusively at the Pakistani Taliban and foreign fighters.
“Once the army is done with TTP and its affiliates and consolidates its position, it will decide what to do about the rest of North Waziristan and other groups,” Rizvi said.
Khan reported from Peshawar.
Tim Craig in Islamabad contributed
to this report.