SINGAPORE (Reuters) -- A long-planned operation to flush out militants from Pakistan's Waziristan region is imminent, the government said on October 11, blaming suspected Al-Qaeda-backed militants for striking at the heart of the military.
"It has been decided, the civilian leadership has decided...the operation is imminent," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Reuters in an interview in Singapore.
Hours earlier Pakistani commandos stormed an office building in Rawalpindi and rescued 39 people taken hostage by militants in a raid on the army headquarters.
Malik said members of the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda were suspected to be behind the October 10 attack which ended a week when suicide bombers struck in the capital Islamabad and Peshawar, killing more than 50 people.
"The man who has been arrested, his name is Usman. He is a TTP [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] guy, but we have some indications he's also from Al-Qaeda," said Malik, who was in Singapore for an Interpol conference.
A security official in Pakistan's Punjab Province earlier said he believed Usman was from the Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi group and another security official said some of the men involved in the attack spoke Punjabi.
But Malik said it was too early to conclude that Punjab-based groups were involved in the attack, which has stoked renewed concern that militants have taken the battle to Pakistan's heartland.
"We've heard that some people are Punjabi speaking. But you never know from the language, you can't make [it] out. The language can be deceptive."
The men who planned the Rawalpindi attack had hired a house for the last two months, where they were living. "The day they had to do the action, they disappeared from the house," he said.
On October 10, gunmen wearing army uniforms attacked the army headquarters, killing six soldiers including a brigadier and a lieutenant colonel in a gunbattle at a main gate.
Five gunmen were killed there and two of their wounded colleagues captured. But others fled and took hostages in a building housing security offices near the headquarters. The militants were overpowered on October 11.
Malik said the planned offensive against the militants in south Waziristan was no longer a matter of choice. "It is not an issue of commitment, it is becoming a compulsion because there was an appeal from the local tribes that we should do the operation," he said.
Pakistan's military has been conducting air and artillery strikes in south Waziristan for months, while moving troops, blockading the region and trying to split off militant factions. But a ground offensive, in what could be the army's toughest test yet since militants turned on the state, has yet to begin.
"The army chief has already been given the mandate to do the operation at an appropriate time.... It is not going to be late, it will be as early as possible," Malik said.
"We have information there are good number of terrorists there. We have to first determine which is the area. You cannot simply go and bulldoze because there are human beings," he said.
About 28,000 troops have been put in place to take on an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban, army officials said earlier.
Malik said he could not determine the time-frame for the operation against the Taliban. "There is no mercy for them because our determination and resolve is to flush them out. They have no room in Pakistan, I promise you."