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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan will launch a military offensive in North Waziristan, a newspaper reported on Monday, days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated a U.S. demand to tackle sanctuaries for al Qaeda and the Taliban on the Afghan border.
An understanding for an offensive in North Waziristan, the main sanctuary in Pakistan for militants fighting in Afghanistan, was reached when Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen visited Pakistan last week, Pakistan's the News newspaper reported.
The United States has long demanded that Pakistan attack the region to eliminate the Haqqani network, one of the deadliest Afghan militant factions fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been reluctant to do so, but it has come under more pressure and its performance in fighting militancy is under scrutiny again after it was discovered that Osama bin Laden had been living in the country.
The News quoted unidentified "highly placed sources" as saying Pakistan's air force would soften up militant targets under the "targeted military offensive" before ground operations were launched. There was no timetable given.
The newspaper cited the sources as saying that a strategy for action in North Waziristan had been drawn up some time ago and an "understanding for carrying out the operation was developed" during the Clinton visit.
The target of any North Waziristan operation would be the most violent factions of the Pakistani Taliban, which has strong ties to al Qaeda, the report said.
But the United States would almost certainly push for a move against Haqqani, too.
Pakistani officials were not immediately available for comment. A U.S. embassy official had no immediate comment.
The newspaper said a "joint operation" with allies had been discussed but no decision had been taken because of sensitivities.
"In case the two sides agreed to go for a joint action, it would be the first time in the present war (on militancy) that foreign boots will get a chance to be on Pakistani soil with the consent of the host country."
That could be highly risky for Pakistan's generals.
The military, long regarded as the most effective institution in a country with a history of corrupt, inept civilian governments, suffered a major blow to its image when U.S. special forces killed bin Laden deep inside Pakistan.
It was further humiliated on May 22-23 when a group of between four and six militants besieged a naval base for 16 hours and destroyed two P-3C Orion aircraft from the Unites States, crucial for Pakistan's maritime surveillance capabilities.
The assault raised fresh doubts about the military's ability to protect its bases after a similar raid on the army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi in 2009.
Pakistani security officials detained a former navy commando and his brother on Friday in connection with the attack, intelligence officials and relatives said.
Some analysts say any joint U.S.-Pakistani operation would subject the army to even more public criticism in a country where anti-U.S. feeling runs deep.
"The reaction could be even more vociferous, just because everybody is so suspicious -- as well as dismissive -- of American interference," said Imtiaz Gul, author of "The Most Dangerous Place," a book about Pakistan's militant strongholds.
"People already feel so humiliated because of this Osama bin Laden thing and now they will have another reason to react."
But the South Asian nation, dependent on billions of dollars in U.S. aid, is under more pressure than ever to show it is serious about tackling militancy.
Attacking U.S. enemies in North Waziristan may be one way of repairing ties with Washington which were badly damaged by the bin Laden affair.
Pakistan maintains about 140,000 troops in the northwest, including about 34,000 in North Waziristan, but says they are too stretched fighting Pakistani Taliban insurgents in other parts of the region to tackle North Waziristan.
But analysts say Pakistan sees the Haqqani network as an asset to counter the growing influence of rival India in Afghanistan.
Aside from strategic concerns, an attack on the Haqqani network could further threaten Pakistan's security as it faces a new wave of attacks by the Pakistani Taliban to avenge the killing of bin Laden by U.S. special forces on May 2.
Highlighting the dangers in North Waziristan, a blast at a restaurant in its main town Miranshah wounded 12 people on Monday, government officials and residents said.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway, Haji Mujtaba and Augustine Anthony; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Sanjeev Miglani