ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's army is ready to launch a major offensive in the Al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, but is waiting approval from the government and first wants to reach deals with local warlords to support the operation, intelligence officials said Friday.
Earlier this week, scores of people fled the mountainous region close to the Afghan border amid speculation an operation was imminent. The army said months ago that it was planning an offensive but did not confirm Friday a newspaper report that it would begin within days.
Pakistan has won praise in the West over the last year for moving against militants in the frontier region blamed for stoking the Afghan insurgency, but has so far stuck to limited, intelligence-led ground and air strikes in South Waziristan, where local and foreign militants are well dug-in.
Also Friday, intelligence officials said the Al Qaeda-linked leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is believed to have been killed by a U.S. missile strike in South Waziristan. The Taliban denied the claim.
Tahir Yuldash's death would be a significant blow to the militant groups that have wreaked havoc along the Afghan-Pakistan border and the latest victory for the covert American missile program.
South Waziristan is believed to be a possible hiding place for Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden.
The military has tried to uproot the insurgents there at least three times since 2004, but abandoned the offensives in the face of stiff opposition.
In August, Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. missile strike in the region.
His death came after Pakistan first said it would stage an offensive in South Waziristan aimed at eliminating Mehsud. Since the missile strike felled the militant commander, however, it had been unclear whether the Pakistani military would go full-scale to eliminate the rest of his network in the tribal region.
Intelligence officers said the army had the required troops, helicopter gunships, planes and other heavy weapons for targeting militants in South Waziristan in three army bases in the region. They said they were awaiting final approval from the government before moving in. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Intelligence officials in Waziristan and the nearby town of Dera Ismail Khan said the government was still negotiating with warlords Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur.
"What the Pakistan army is working on is that if they both do not announce their support, then they should remain impartial," one said.
Both leaders are known to control several thousand fighters and have made deals with Pakistani authorities in the past, but are believed to also support attacks against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Analysts have said ensuring they do not join forces with the Taliban will be key to any success in Waziristan.
Dawn newspaper's Friday editions quoted unmanned officials as saying that a major operation in South Waziristan would begin "in the next few days." Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said only that "no date had been decided or announced" for any operation.
It was unclear why officers would announce any operation before launching one. Such a move would seem certain to tip off the militants and either allow them to prepare or flee.
Uzbek militant Yuldash was wounded in an Aug. 27 missile strike in the South Waziristan tribal region and is believed to have died a few days later, said four intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Yuldash and others formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the 1990s, with the initial goal of overthrowing authoritarian President Islam Karimov and establishing an Islamic state. Its ambitions expanded to creating an Islamic state encompassing all of former Soviet Central Asia and China's Xinjiang province.
Hundreds of the group's members are active in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with many hiding in Pakistan's tribal regions in alliance with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Uzbeks are considered some of the fiercest insurgents in the region.
The Pakistani officials said they had received the information about Yuldash's death from militant sources. However, Qari Hussain, a top militant among the Taliban ranks, called The Associated Press on Friday to insist that Yuldash was not dead.
"These reports are all fake," Hussain said from an undisclosed location. "He is alive."