Media gains access to conflict-hit zone

SHERWANGAL: This was the front line of the war in Waziristan, or as close as any outsider has got since the Pakistan army launched a sweeping assault on the Taliban’s mountain stronghold. After three weeks of a virtual media blockade, the army flew local and international journalists in by helicopter on Wednesday to witness the action first hand.

But as ever in a war of such importance for Pakistan, the flow of information was carefully managed. On a wooded hilltop Brigadier Tayyeb pointed to a cloud of white smoke rising from a village. “The miscreants are sitting there. The fight is going on,” he said. Tayyeb has led the drive towards Kanniguram, a Taliban hub five miles away. It is one of three axes of attack the army is following.

A few moments later, he urged a group of journalists to move back inside a walled compound.

“This place is still dangerous; there is a possibility of sniper fire. But by evening, inshallah [God willing], we will clear it,” he said.

Inside the compound, his troops had laid out a selection of militant paraphernalia which, they said, was seized from Taliban compounds in nearby Shelwasti village. Soldiers had neatly laid out stacks of artillery shells, piles of antiquated rifles, jihadist banners, broken computers, Islamist propaganda books and, most intriguing of all, a stack of passports and photos said to belong to foreign militants. There were explosives manuals in Russian and medicine made in India, Pakistan’s old rival.

The army’s message was clear — it wanted to stress the influence of al-Qaida linked extremists, said to number about 1,500, who are fighting alongside the local Taliban, most of whom come from the Mehsud tribe.

Major General Athar Abbas, the army spokesman, said the foreigners were mostly Uzbeks but also came from Arab countries and Europe, and were key to the Taliban’s instruction in the dark arts of guerrilla ambush and suicide bombing. “These foreigners are vital

to them,” he said, adding that the army faces a maximum of 8,000 fighters in South Waziristan.

But the army is more shy about publicising its own allies.