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Pakistan prepares assault, eyes Taliban infighting
Sat Oct 3, 2009 7:19am EDT
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By Robert Birsel
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistani army is keeping up pressure on the Pakistani Taliban as it prepares for an offensive on their South Waziristan stronghold and awaits the outcome of infighting between factions, a army spokesman said on Saturday.
The government ordered the army to launch an offensive against Pakistani Taliban Baitullah Mehsud and his men in South Waziristan near the Afghan border in June.
Mehsud, accused of numerous bomb attacks across the country, was killed in a U.S. missile strike in August.
The security forces have been launching air strikes, while moving in troops, blockading the region and trying to split off factions.
"The operation is continuing through air targeting, squeezing the area -- all the entry and exit routes have been blocked -- and, of course, waiting for the result of the infighting for the succession," military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said.
Mehsud's killing threw the Taliban into disarray with rival factions vying to take control of the al Qaeda-linked Taliban Movement of Pakistan alliance of 13 militant factions.
Confusion surrounds who is in charge.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe the newly named leader of the militant alliance, Hakimullah Mehsud, might have been killed in a firefight with a rival faction soon after Mehsud's death.
Abbas said some Pakistani security agencies had reported that Hakimullah was dead but there was no confirmation.
"It's confusing because the area is sealed, there's no free movement or credible intelligence presence inside," Abbas said.
Abbas said two divisions, or up to 28,000 soldiers, were in place, enough to take on an estimated 10,000 hardcore Taliban.
Winter snow could arrive in late November, hampering military operations but Abbas said the weather was one of many factors that planners were taking into account.
"It's a matter of the time which, of course, the military would not like to disclose or give any hint about," he said.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Reuters in an interview last month that the government would take whatever action was necessary to flush out the Pakistani Taliban -- who he described as the "front face of al Qaeda" -- from the tribal areas.
U.S. PRESSURE Continued...
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