Thousands flee Waziristan in fear of military sweep

Thousands of people have fled one of Pakistan's troubled northwestern tribal districts in recent days, fearing a military offensive against Islamist militants, locals and officials said.

Panicked residents have hastily left the area of North Waziristan despite officials repeatedly insisting that Pakistan has no immediate plan to launch an offensive in the volatile region, they added.

North Waziristan, one of Pakistan's seven tribal districts and riddled with militancy, is considered a stronghold of the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives.

Although Pakistan has fought Taliban militants across much of the region it has so far withstood American pressure to move against the Al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network in North Waziristan.

"Thousands of people have so far left the area, they are fleeing their homes due to the fear and rumours of a military operation," Saif-Ur Rehman, a government official in the main town of Miranshah, told AFP.

Tasleem Khan, another government official confirmed the evacuation.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders North Waziristan, told AFP that thousands of people have reached several districts in his area.

Rumours started early this week after a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban told local media that it had received "an exclusive intelligence report" about an offensive in North Waziristan.

In an email sent to media, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said the campaign was to be launched on August 26 and would last one month.

Government and military officials have taken to local radio, asking people to remain calm.

"This is a peaceful area with a peaceful atmosphere. The government has no plan to launch any military operation here," a radio announcement heard by local residents said.

On Saturday, some 2000 tribal elders and religious leaders warned the government to not to launch any offensive and threatened to move to Afghanistan "in case of any military operation".

"We will migrate to Afghanistan, if Pakistan launches any military operation," Maulvi Abdur Rehman, a religious leader who presided over the tribal Jirga said.

The Jirga held in Mirali Town of North Waziristan also requested residents to stay at home.

An AFP reporter in the area witnessed people fleeing their homes in vehicles.

Washington has long demanded that Pakistan take action against the Haqqanis, whom the United States accused of attacking the US embassy in Kabul last September and of acting like the "veritable arm" of Pakistani intelligence.

Pakistan has in turn demanded that Afghan and US forces do more to stop Pakistani Taliban crossing the Afghan border to launch attacks on its forces.

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