ISLAMABAD/PESHAWAR Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani officials said on Tuesday they would target any militants, including the Haqqanis, as they proceed with a military operation in the remote region of North Waziristan, but mounting evidence showed many militants had already fled.
The Haqqani network, which mainly operates out of Pakistan's border areas, has been blamed for some of the deadliest and most sophisticated attacks on NATO and Afghan troops across the border in Afghanistan.
Top U.S. military officials say it has close ties with Pakistan's feared military intelligence agency, the ISI. The military denies that.
Pakistan has traditionally targeted only militants that carry out attacks on Pakistani soil, while ignoring those that mount attacks across the border.
But Major General Asim Bajwa said all civilian residents of North Waziristan, a mountainous region on the Afghan border, had left and the military would target anyone still there.
"They cannot escape," he told a press briefing. "It's very clear that those who left inside are only terrorists."
Nervous laughter rippled around the room as Bajwa faced aggressive questioning about whether the military was pursuing the Haqqanis or allied Taliban commanders who stage attacks inside Afghanistan but leave Pakistani forces alone.
Although Bajwa did not refer specifically to the Haqqanis, he promised that the military would go after "terrorists of all hue and colour" and there would be no discrimination between Taliban factions.
Abdul Qadir Baloch, the minister for states and frontier regions and a close ally of the prime minister, was more blunt.
"Haqqani or no Haqqani ... no one who tries to terrorise in Pakistan will be allowed. Our government has been saying time and again that the soil of Pakistan will not be allowed to be used against anyone," he said.
However, it has become increasingly clear that many militants fled the area before air operations began on June 15. Ground troops fanned out into the area on Monday.
MILITANTS ON THE MOVE
Residents told Reuters that the Haqqanis, who have close links with the Afghan Taliban but are less trusted by their counterparts in Pakistan, had left North Waziristan before the operation got underway. That was how they knew the army was finally coming after years of false alarms.
"It was the first time members and family members of the Haqqani network left the houses they had been living in for more than 15 years," said a tribal elder in an area considered the stronghold of the Haqqani network.
No members of the Haqqani network have ever been captured in Pakistan, although unidentified gunmen shot dead the group's chief financier in the Pakistani capital last year.
Two Taliban commanders said the chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, had met militant leaders to offer them refuge at his base across the Afghan border before the operation started.
"The prime purpose of his visit was to assure his people in North Waziristan of full support and accommodation in Afghanistan in case of a military operation," one commander said.
But when Fazlullah met members of the Haqqani network, they politely declined his offer, the commander said, noting they had "burnt their bridges" in Afghanistan. The Haqqanis moved elsewhere, he said.
The Pakistani military complains that the Afghans tolerate sanctuaries on their side of the border for militants who attack the Pakistani state, a tit-for-tat revenge for years when Pakistan harboured Afghan militants.
Bajwa acknowledged it was possible that some militants had fled North Waziristan but said 376 had been killed so far. Many were foreigners, he said, especially Uzbeks, widely hated in Pakistan for their ferocious reputation.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)