By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani forces on Thursday launched their first major offensive in years against Taliban militants near the Afghan border after several rounds of government-led talks aimed at ending an insurgency in the remote region failed.
The offensive targeted the Matchis Camp near the capital of North Waziristan, an area set up to house Afghan refugees but now a hub for local and foreign militants, Siraj Ahmed, the highest government official in the region, told Reuters by telephone.
Residents said helicopter gunships flattened houses and compounds in Matchis Camp while ground forces surrounded the area.
Pakistani-made surveillance drones also hovered over the area all morning, the first time the country has launched unmanned aircraft.
Disagreements over how to handle the Taliban insurgency has soured relations between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan's powerful army, which has been pushing for a major military offensive.
Speculation that the army might launch an offensive in the frontier tribal areas has been building as the government's attempts to engage the Pakistani Taliban in peace talks have floundered in recent months.
There has also been a surge in attacks on military outposts recently.
"We announced yesterday that people should leave the area," Ahmed said. "This morning, tanks moved in and helicopter ships began demolishing houses in the Matchis camp area."
The Pakistan government signed an unofficial non-aggression pact with pro-government militants in the area in 2007 and there has been no ground offensive in the area since.
In the last few months, the army has intermittently used aircraft to target militant hideouts, and on Wednesday Pakistani fighter jets bombed suspected militant hideouts in North Waziristan, killing dozens of people.
On Wednesday, an officer of the Pakistan army was killed in a gun battle with Taliban militants in the Mir Ali area of the tribal belt, the army said.
The military's media wing could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday's ground offensive but intelligence and government officials said troops were moving from three directions and some clashes had erupted with Taliban.
"The offensive could be the army's toughest test in years," a senior military official said.
Foreign militants from various places including Central Asia have long been known to be based in the region.
Pakistani authorities imposed a curfew in the area on Tuesday and residents said many people had fled their homes anticipating shelling and raids by helicopter gunships.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a powerful militant leader in Pakistan's North Waziristan border region, criticized the offensive and told Reuters the council of militant groups he heads was meeting to decide to suspend the 2007 peace deal.
Bahadur is known to have links with notorious militant groups in tribal North Waziristan, including the Haqqani network, the most high-profile threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
(Additional reporting By Haji Mujtaba in Miranshah; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Miral Fahmy)