Channel NewsAsia

Pakistan eases curfew as bigger offensive looms

Pakistan eased a curfew in a tribal area Wednesday to allow civilians to flee a major offensive against the Taliban, signalling a likely escalation in the campaign as the US hit the militants with drone strikes.

Miranshah (Pakistan) - Pakistan eased a curfew in a tribal area on Wednesday to allow civilians to flee a major offensive against the Taliban, signalling a likely escalation in the campaign as the US hit the militants with drone strikes.

The Pakistani military has deployed troops, tanks and jets in North Waziristan, on the border with Afghanistan, in a long-awaited crackdown on the Taliban and other militants in the tribal area.

Adding to the pressure on the insurgents, two US drone strikes hit compounds in the area early on Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of people have already fled the operation, which the Pakistani military says has killed more than 200 militants, and a fresh exodus is under way.

More than 1,000 vehicles arrived on Wednesday in the town of Bannu, just across the border in neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a traditional haven for those fleeing violence in restive North Waziristan.

An AFP reporter in Bannu saw around 3,000 vehicles leaving to retrieve people from Mir Ali, one of towns where the curfew has been eased.

Registration points and camps have been set up to deal with the influx of people, officials said.

The decision to allow more civilians to leave North Waziristan points to a new, more intense phase of the anti-militant drive, in which ground forces will play a greater role.

A senior security official in northwest Pakistan told AFP the curfew was lifted to let people flee ahead of a more concerted ground operation.

"Miranshah and Mir Ali have already been cordoned off. Ground troops will move in after civilians move to safe places," the official said.

"First ground troops will enter in major towns and will then move towards the suburban areas," after strengthening their positions.

"We will then go to the villages and to the mountains," he added, saying the operation would continue until every militant had been eliminated.

A second security official in the northwest confirmed the details.

At least five suspected militants were killed in two separate US drone missile strikes in North Waziristan, according to local officials.

Strikes in the tribal area a week ago ended a nearly six-month hiatus in Washington's controversial campaign against militants in Pakistan.

Coming just days before the launch of the Pakistani military operation, they also triggered talk of collaboration between the US and Pakistan.

Amir Rana, the director of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies think-tank, said he believed the latest strikes were a further indication of cooperation.

"What level (was the cooperation) and did Pakistan request it for specific target? That has to be seen," Rana told AFP.

"So far the drone strikes are going on in the same area where the military is launching its operation, so we can see there is coordination."

The Pakistani government has routinely condemned drone strikes as a violation of sovereignty, and did so again last week -- though leaked documents have shown deep cooperation on them with the US in the past.

The number and identity of those killed in the military operation cannot be verified, and some residents who have fled the area spoke of civilian casualties from aerial bombing before the offensive officially began on Sunday.

Aziz-ur-Rehman, a 42-year-old teacher at a school in Mir Ali, fled the town riding on the bonnet of a truck.

"It's like doomsday for people in Mir Ali, where death is everywhere since Saturday," he told AFP, accusing the military of killing numerous civilians.

"They start the day with artillery shelling early in the morning. Gunship helicopters come for shelling during the day and jets strike at around 2:00-2:30 in the night."

He said the onslaught killed two children in his neighbourhood and left a third girl badly wounded.

Rehman was one of around 9,000 people who arrived in Bannu on Wednesday, according to Arshad Khan, Director General of the FATA Disaster Management Authority.

Many streamed into the town carrying possessions with them -- quilts, buckets, mats, water coolers, even livestock and family pets. One family even brought three parrots in a cage.

As they left North Waziristan and entered Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, people were issued with ration packs containing biscuits, tea, sugar and milk.

Thousands of people have also fled across the border into the Gorbaz district of Afghanistan's Khost province, according to local officials there, and are being given food and aid.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has asked Afghan President Hamid Karzai to help stop insurgents also escaping over the porous frontier.

Pakistan's army launched the offensive -- a longstanding demand of the United States -- on Sunday, a week after an attack on Karachi airport claimed by the Taliban killed dozens and marked the end of a troubled peace process.

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia