BANNU, Pakistan — Pakistan stepped up its drive against the Taliban in North Waziristan on Thursday with heavy strikes and a commando raid on Miram Shah, the district’s largest town, in what military officials described as the prelude to a major ground offensive.
Fighter jets and heavy guns fired on Taliban-occupied buildings in the town’s main bazaar, according to an intelligence official based in Peshawar. After hours of shelling, Pakistani special operations forces soldiers were reported to have moved in and held the area for most of the day.
The advance was the army’s first major thrust into the center of Miram Shah, a hub of militant activity, and was an escalation after days of a relative lull in operations to allow civilians to flee.
The military said that 456,000 displaced people had registered for aid, making it Pakistan’s biggest conflict-driven humanitarian crisis since a previous push against the Taliban in 2009.
But in Bannu, a town on the edge of Waziristan where a majority of refugees have arrived, officials said the figure had already surpassed 500,000 by Thursday morning. Rents have tripled and transport costs soared in the past week as thousands of families cram into rented accommodation, or with relatives. Many complained bitterly about their conditions.
“We have no option but to pay whatever the landlords demand, even if we have to sell our wives’ jewelry,” said Gul Manan, who said he had fled Datta Khel, a village that has been a frequent target of U.S. drone strikes.
At a local football stadium, hundreds of men lined up in intense heat for relief packages of food and about $120 in cash.
“This is an insult,” said Fazal Munawar, 22, his face creased with exhaustion. “But I am broke, as I spent all my money on renting a truck to transport my family to a house here.”
So far, the military operation has mostly involved airstrikes against remote militant compounds in North Waziristan that, a spokesman in Rawalpindi told reporters Thursday, had resulted in the deaths of 327 fighters and just 10 soldiers.
But the number and identity of those killed could not be confirmed because North Waziristan is effectively sealed off to the outside world, including journalists. Some fleeing tribesmen said the military strikes had killed civilians as well as militants.
The next step, military officials said, is a major ground assault into the towns of Miram Shah and Mir Ali.
“Both towns would be cleared in one go, simultaneously,” said a senior military official in Peshawar.
But in Bannu, fleeing tribesmen indicated that many Taliban fighters had already left the area.
“The Taliban seemed to know about this operation before we did,” said Muhammad Rafique, a tribal elder from Miram Shah, who described how Taliban fighters had fled before most civilians.
Several Taliban commanders and dozens of fighters have been spotted in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, which is not affected by the current operation.
“They are living with local militants, and planning to travel to Baluchistan or across the border into Afghanistan,” said a Taliban-affiliated commander, speaking by phone from Wana on the condition of anonymity.
Some refugees said that Uzbek militants, who are also being targeted by the Pakistani military, had fled into the Shawal Valley, a thick forest that straddles North and South Waziristan, or into southern Afghanistan.
“They shifted their families, women and children, before the operation was launched to safer places,” said Mansoor Dawar, a tribesman from Mir Ali who said he had seen the Uzbeks packing up.
What remains unclear, however, is whether the Pakistani offensive will target the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied group that focuses its attacks in Afghanistan and that has longstanding ties with Pakistani intelligence. In Washington, a senior Obama administration official said on the condition of anonymity that there were indications that the main Pakistani military spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, had tipped off senior Haqqani commanders before the operation.
In the briefing in Rawalpindi, the military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, rejected any suggestion that the military was cherry-picking its foes.
“There will be no discrimination among Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan groups or Haqqani network,” he said. “All terror groups are going to be eliminated.”
Still, the military’s complex relationship with Islamist militants has also become apparent in the relief effort for North Waziristan. In Bannu, groups that the United States has designated as terrorist organizations were offering food, medicine and shelter to fleeing families.
Among them was Jamaat ud Dawa, a charity that the State Department said Wednesday is a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that has carried out attacks in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Mumbai, India. Ahmad Nadeem, the group’s spokesman in Bannu, denied any connection with Lashkar.
“How can we be terrorists if we are helping the poor masses?” he said, adding that his group was feeding 10,000 people every day and running a medical treatment center. “We don’t need an American certificate for what we do as long as our own Pakistani brothers and sisters are satisfied with our activities.”
The United States is helping conflict refugees, too. On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said the government had donated $8 million to a relief program run by the U.N. World Food Program.
The refugee flood has also spilled into Afghanistan. The U.N. refugee agency in Kabul says that about 65,000 people have crossed into Khost province - an embarrassment to Pakistanis after years of Afghan refugee traffic in the other direction but also a source of worry about Taliban fighters escaping the military operation.
On Thursday, the Afghan national security chief, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, visited Islamabad with the head of the Afghan spy agency for security talks.
“We expect Afghanistan to take measures on the borders so that these terrorists do not find sanctuaries on Afghan territory,” the Pakistan foreign office spokeswoman, Tasnim Aslam Khan, said in a news conference.
Each country has accused the other of harboring enemy fighters. In a joint statement after the meeting, they said they had agreed on the need to tackle militant groups “without making any distinction among them and their hideouts on their respective sides.”
Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud reported from Bannu, and Ismail Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan. Declan Walsh contributed reporting from London, and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul, Afghanistan.