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Land of drones and militants: Rare visit to Pakistan's North Waziristan, terror group haven

The streets of the one-time militant haven of Miran Shah were all but deserted, with only a few donkeys wandering around and soldiers standing guard in the alleys and roads. The destroyed buildings were testament to the ferocity of a government operation to clear this area in northwestern Pakistan of extremists.

Inside some of the run-down brick houses, the Pakistani military found evidence of the ruthlessness of the militants who have long made their homes here.

Large factories where they fit explosives into gas cylinders to hide in vehicles. Areas where they trained suicide bombers in the do's and don'ts of their operations — don't make personal phone calls that might tip off authorities, for example. Places where they stored ammunition and ran extortion rings. A wall scrawled with the words "Jihad, Jihad."

"It was no doubt the epicenter of terrorism," said Maj. Gen. Zafarullah Khan, who is overseeing the operation.

The Pakistani military took a group of journalists to Miran Shah for a one-day visit of the war zone, the first by the news media since the operation began on June 15. It was a rare look inside the isolated city in the country's rugged northwest, closer to the border with Afghanistan than to the capital, Islamabad.

The operation against the Pakistani Taliban and other militants in the region was a long time coming.

The U.S., frustrated at seeing its troops in Afghanistan attacked by forces coming from North Waziristan, has been pushing for years for a crackdown there. Unable to send in troops itself, the U.S. relied on CIA drone strikes, many of which hit Miran Shah.

Pakistan resisted, saying its troops were too spread out across the tribal regions. The military was also believed to have wanted political support before going in.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's election a year ago delayed military action further. He pushed for negotiations with the extremists. It wasn't until a shocking attack on the Karachi airport on June 8 that the government approved the operation.

Khan said that some of the extremists used that time to flee, while others managed to escape as government forces were encircling the city. So far, government troops have not found any of the top militant leadership in the city, according to Khan.

"They had smelled it that the operation is about to be launched," he said. "The buildup for the operation had already begun, and they could see that."

Khan said 400 militants were killed and 130 wounded. Those figures could not be independently verified.

One Pakistani Taliban commander, Gilaman Mehsood, in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location, disputed the military's casualty figures and said most of the Pakistani Taliban fighters are now living in border areas of Afghanistan.

Miran Shah had become a hub for Pakistani Taliban militants fighting to overthrow the government and establish a hard-line Islamic state across Pakistan. Other groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, also had a presence in the city.

Khan cautioned that militants are still in parts of the city and troops are still in the early days of the ground operation, with other areas of North Waziristan still to be tackled.

About 80 percent of the city has been cleared of militants, but it is still heavily booby-trapped, Khan said. Many buildings in the city of mostly one-story brick houses were destroyed by artillery shells, tank fire or airstrikes, or by homemade explosives left behind by the militants. Cars were buried in the rubble.

The military found an extensive network of tunnels — one roughly two kilometers long — that the militants used to move around. There were large caches of ammunition and weapons, along with pain medicine, antibiotics, computers and training literature.

No civilians were seen across the entire city. The government says roughly 800,000 people have fled North Waziristan, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis.

The military is also concerned that extremists could hide amid the refugees and then re-emerge elsewhere in the country — something that happened during previous crackdowns.

The military says it has tried to guard against that by questioning refugees when they leave. Those efforts have sparked anger among those fleeing.

"I had to cross five checkpoints, and at all posts soldiers checked our luggage and asked questions about my family. They wanted to make sure that we are not members of the Taliban," said Gohar Wazir, of Mir Ali, the other major city in North Waziristan.

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Associated Press writers Ijaz Muhammed in Bannu and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.