Hundreds Flee Terrorist Stronghold in Pakistan

Pakistani soldiers traded rocket and mortar fire with militants on Monday as hundreds of civilians fled the Taliban and Al Qaeda's main stronghold in the northwest. A homicide car bomber killed five people including a prominent tribal elder.

Pakistan's civilian government 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. Pakistan jets have bombed targets in Waziristan in recent months, but the military has said it would launch full-scale ground operations at the "appropriate" time.

Residents said the military and the Taliban had urged them to flee South Waziristan in recent days.

Sumsam Bukhari, the junior information minister, told reporters the launch of a major military operation in Waziristan was not discussed at a Cabinet meeting Monday. "This is all speculative, and there is no such thing planned yet," he said.

In recent days, there's been an increase in the number of people leaving the Makeen and Ladha areas of South Waziristan, according to residents, though many have been fleeing to the relative safety of nearby towns for months.

"There is bombing everywhere," said Iqbal Mehsud, a resident of Ladha who was in a pickup truck loaded with luggage, two goats, a cow and a dog. "There is a shortage of rations. Most of our people have left. It is now like a ghost area."

Tribal elder Maulana Hassamuddin said locals had been "asked by security people and the political administration" to leave. Resident Amir Ullah said the Taliban had also urged 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 Waziristan region 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.

Meanwhile, a homicide car bomber attacked a vehicle in Baka Khel, which lies close to Waziristan. Five people were killed, including Maulvi Abdul Hakim, a tribal leader who was instrumental in allowing security forces to pass through the area and gain access to the North Waziristan tribal region, a paramilitary official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. Police officer Iqbal Marwat put the death toll at four.

Also Monday, one Pakistani soldier was killed and seven others critically wounded in a militant rocket attack on an army camp in the northwest, two intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity, citing policy. The military responded by firing heavy artillery on the Razmak, Ladha and Makeen areas, killing 18 insurgents, they said.

In the Orakzai region, helicopter gunships pounded militant locations, killing 10 insurgents and wounding several others in three villages, said two officials also on condition of anonymity because they were allowed to release the information.

Orakzai is the base of Hakimullah Mehsud — the new chief of the Pakistani Taliban who was appointed after the killing of his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, in an Aug. 5 missile strike.

Media access to region is severely restricted, making it nearly impossible to independently verify official accounts.

Pakistan's efforts to fight the insurgency have met with Taliban retaliation. On Saturday, 22 people were killed in the northwest not far from the tribal belt, including 11 in Peshawar, the region's main city.

The two attacks came just days after a top Taliban militant, Qari Hussain Mehsud, warned of increasing suicide attacks if the military did not stop operations.

The Taliban took responsibility for one of Saturday's bombings.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for Monday's car bombing.