ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's military started a major ground offensive in the northwestern part of the country on Monday, beginning what army commanders say will be a “house-to-house search” for terrorist leaders and militants.
The offensive began after two weeks of airstrikes in North Waziristan, which has been a key sanctuary for the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups such as the Haqqani network. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may be hiding in the area.
Pakistan's military said its soldiers discovered “underground tunnels” and “preparation factories” for explosives during the initial hours of the ground assault.
Backed by artillery and tanks, the troops killed 17 terrorists on Monday, the army said. Combined with the toll from airstrikes that began on June 16, a total of 376 terrorists have died in the offensive, the army said.
It is difficult to independently verify the army's statements because foreign journalists are barred from traveling to the area. But more than a half-million residents have fled North Waziristan in preparation for the ground offensive.
The mass evacuation of the area, which has a population of about 600,000 residents, was designed by the Pakistani army to try to limit civilian casualties while trapping militants.
The scale of the exodus has alarmed humanitarian groups, which have questioned whether Pakistan has enough resources to properly care for displaced residents.
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