INTERVIEW-Pakistan may launch military operation in March - defence minister

ISLAMABAD, March 7 (Reuters) - Pakistan could launch a full-scale military operation against Pakistani Taliban insurgents in tribal areas near the Afghan border as early as this month, the defence minister said, warning insurgents against violating a ceasefire.

Khawaja Asif told Reuters that the government would not hesitate to bomb militant hideouts or send forces into the tribal areas if the Pakistani Taliban did not abide by the ceasefire announced last weekend.

“It will not take months now. We’ll have to march in the month of March,” Asif said in the interview on Thursday, describing the government’s response if insurgents persisted in their attacks despite the ceasefire.

“If there is a ceasefire, it has to be complete. Without that, we just can’t afford to have talks with the Taliban.”

Pakistan fears that the end of the U.S. combat mission in neighbouring Afghanistan this year could energise a resilient insurgency straddling their shared frontier.

“If in the post-withdrawal period, the Afghan Taliban become stronger and carve out an area of influence in the south and east of Afghanistan, which is next to our border - that’s a scenario we should even avoid thinking of,” Asif said. (Reporting By Mehreen Zahra-Malik Editing by Maria Golovnina and Ron Popeski)