BANNU, Pakistan — Residents of a Taliban-infested region in northwest Pakistani where the military launched a major offensive began to flee on Wednesday after authorities lifted a curfew there, officials said.
The military says the long-awaited offensive will target local and foreign militants who use the North Waziristan region as a base to attack Pakistan. The U.S. has pushed Pakistan repeatedly to take action against militant groups in the region that target Afghan and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
So far the offensive has largely relied on airstrikes but the easing of the curfew to allow residents to leave could indicate a more intense ground offensive is in the making.
A disaster management authority official, Dil Nawaz Khan, said the agency did not have an exact count of how many people left after the curfew was eased but estimated it was hundreds of families.
Roughly 63,000 people left the North Waziristan tribal region in the weeks before the offensive began on Sunday, fleeing previous airstrikes and because of fears of a larger offensive. Authorities expect another 130,000 people to be displaced in the coming days, said Arshad Khan, the head of the disaster management authority.
A steady stream of trucks, vans and vehicles loaded down with household possessions, including beds, fans and televisions, started to roll down the road connecting the capital of North Waziristan, Miran Shah, with Bannu in the nearby Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
The curfew was imposed Saturday.
"Everybody is leaving their villages. There is no sufficient transport available. Some people don't have money to afford that. Some people have just started walking on foot," said one resident, Ahmad Ali, who was traveling with 12 of his family members crammed into a passenger van.
"It's very bad conditions there," he said, referring to the area in Mir Ali he had just left. "Fighter jets are bombing, artillery is firing, several houses have been destroyed in my village, but I don't know who were the people killed there."
Authorities said they are prepared for the exodus and will provide transportation to the residents as well as a camp to stay in but the previous people who left have generally chosen to stay with relatives or rent accommodations.
As the Pakistani military's offensive in North Waziristan started, the U.S.'s drone program also resumed after a roughly six-month break.
A suspected U.S. drone strike targeting a militant hideout near the Afghan border killed four men Wednesday, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
The missiles hit a vehicle and a compound in the town of Dandey Darpakhel in North Waziristan, said the two officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to media. The strike was the first since the military offensive began Sunday and the third in the past two weeks.
Pakistan had asked the U.S. to refrain from drone strikes while it tried to negotiate with the Taliban militants. But negotiations collapsed after militants laid siege to the country's biggest airport on June 8, in an attack that shocked the country.
The militants killed in the drone strike were believed to be members of the Haqqani network, the officials said. The Haqqanis, the same group that is believed to have held America's only POW Bowe Bergdahl, are accused of carrying out numerous high-profile attacks in Afghanistan.
Khan contributed from Peshawar. Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad contributed to this report from Islamabad.