ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's military said Tuesday it has launched a ground offensive against local and foreign militants in a second key insurgent stronghold near the Afghan border, as authorities rushed aid to over 800,000 people who fled the northwestern tribal region for safety.
The army spokesman, Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa, said government forces moved in the town of Mir Ali on Monday, triggering a gunbattle in which 3 soldiers and seven militants were killed.
"Our forces launched the ground operation against terrorists in Mir Ali on Monday, and they are facing resistance," he told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore.
Mir Ali is near Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal region, where the military last month launched a long-awaited operation against the militants who have carried out numerous attacks in the country.
The insurgents were also behind scores of attacks on NATO, U.S. and Afghan forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
Washington has been urging Pakistan for years for a crackdown in North Waziristan. Unable to send in troops itself, the U.S. has relied on CIA drone strikes, many of which have hit Miran Shah and other nearby border villages. Pakistan had previously said its troops were too spread out across the tribal regions to launch such a crackdown.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif 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.
Authorities say over 800,000 people have poured out of North Waziristan, raising concerns of a humanitarian crisis.
Bajwa said the security forces would never allow militants to return to North Waziristan.
He said the military had cleared Miran Shah of militants, killing 447 of them while losing 26 soldiers there since the start of the June 15 operation.
Also Tuesday, a top opposition leader, Imran Khan criticized Sharif's government for failing to provide basic facilities to people affected by the military operation.
"Prime Minister (Nawaz Sharif) should resign for his failure," he told reporters in Islamabad.
Khan said Sharif's government had done little to help those displaced by the military operation in the northwest.
Earlier, a court sentenced a man to death on blasphemy charges in eastern Pakistan, a government prosecutor said Tuesday.
Mohammad Zulfiqar, 50, was mentally ill and should not have been tried on the charges, said Kashif Bokhari, who was appointed by the government to plead the case because no one turned up to defend the accused.
"The court rejected my argument," Bokhari said.
Zulfiqar was charged with blasphemy after writing what were considered to be blasphemous comments on the walls of a Lahore neighborhood in 2008.
Insulting the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad can be punished with life imprisonment or death under Pakistani law.
Najmul Hasan, a resident, originally filed the complaint against Zulfiqar, who used to wander the streets of the neighborhood.
Hasan's lawyer, Ghulam Mustafa, said there was no evidence to prove Zulfiqar's mental state at the time.
Although Pakistan has never executed anybody under the law, angry crowds have been known to take the law into their own hands and kill those they suspect of violating it. Once an accusation is made it is extremely difficult to reverse, in part because law enforcement personnel do not want to show the appearance of leniency.
Such vigilante justice has created a climate of fear, forcing frightened judges into holding court sessions inside jails and keeping witnesses from coming to the defense of those on trial.
Many human rights activists say the blasphemy law is often misused as a way to target people for personal gain or revenge.
No Pakistani government has ever dared to amend the law. A Pakistani provincial governor and a minister for minorities were shot and killed in 2011 for campaigning against the law and trying to amend it.
Associated Press Writer Zaheer Babar contributed to this report from Lahore.