By Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Dec. 30 -- Pakistan's military launched a major offensive Tuesday in the northwestern tribal region known as Khyber Agency, temporarily closing a key route used to supply U.S. and allied forces battling insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistani army and paramilitary troops backed by tanks, helicopter gunships and artillery units targeted the Taliban fighters involved in a recent string of attacks on vehicles carrying supplies for NATO and U.S. forces that pass through Khyber Agency and the nearby city of Peshawar.
"Our security forces today launched an operation against the militants in Jamrud region, the gateway to Khyber Agency," the tribal region's top administrator, Tariq Hayat, said at a news conference in Peshawar.
He said the movement of NATO supplies was suspended temporarily with the closure of the main highway linking Peshawar and Torkham, the last town on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan.
The road, which winds up through the Khyber Pass, is the principal supply line for thousands of Western troops fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The United States sends 75 percent of its supplies to Afghanistan through the region, although the Pentagon has recently been exploring the possibility of using alternate routes through Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Hayat said that the military operation will continue until its objectives are achieved, adding that although security forces are operating in the Jamrud region, the offensive could be expanded later to other areas of Khyber Agency.
He said the main objective is to secure the NATO supply lines and halt the attacks by insurgents on vehicles carrying fuel, food and ammunition to Western forces in Afghanistan.
Residents of Peshawar said they saw several military vehicles and tanks entering Khyber Agency early Tuesday. Some living on the outskirts of the city also described hearing explosions as helicopters pounded insurgent hideouts in the Jamrud area.
"The explosions were so loud they could be heard in Hayatabad and other parts of Peshawar lying close to Khyber Agency," said Azmat Khan, a resident of Peshawar.
Khan said residents of Hayatabad and other nearby areas were not told of the operation by the government. Now that it has started, Khan said, they cannot leave their houses because most of the roads in the area have been closed.
Anwar Khan Afridi, a resident of Jamrud, said a curfew imposed by the military was also preventing local people from leaving. He said many were gripped by fear after the offensive began.
A security official in Peshawar, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that at least six people had been killed in the operation Tuesday and that 15 others were injured, including two security personnel.
He declined to identify those killed.