ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani troops backed by attack helicopters stepped up an operation to push the Taliban farther away from the capital Friday, saying they killed at least 55 fighters. But the government was resisting Western pressure to expand the crackdown and abandon peace talks with militants who want to impose their brand of Islam across this nuclear-armed country.
The army launched the drive to retake Buner, a poor, hilly region just 60 miles from Islamabad, on Tuesday after Taliban from the neighboring Swat Valley overran it under cover of a controversial peace pact.
The Obama administration has welcomed the assault. It views the Swat deal, which calls for the imposition of Islamic law in the surrounding area of northwest Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, as a surrender to allies of al-Qaida. And it has expressed growing doubts about Pakistan’s stability as the Taliban have edged closer to Islamabad.
Washington is particularly concerned because it considers stability in Pakistan — and rooting out its militant sanctuaries — critical to success in the Afghan war.
But the government in Islamabad is refusing to extend the operation beyond Buner and halt the peace talks favored by many Pakistanis skeptical of Western goals in the region. The army expects to wind up the Buner operation within a week of when it started.
The country has launched several offensives against Taliban militants in the border region in recent years. The raids have killed scores of extremists but alienated many Pakistanis.
But there has been little criticism of the current operation so far, most likely because the militants advanced after signing a peace agreement with the government.
On Friday, the army said its troops routed about 80 militants dug in on the Ambela Pass leading into Buner from the south and were trying to link up with government forces holding the main town of Daggar.
Soldiers and helicopters in the Ambela area destroyed about a dozen cars and motorbikes laden with explosives, apparently for suicide missions, spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
Two soldiers died and eight more were wounded when a suicide bomber detonated explosives hidden in a house beside a road, Abbas said at a news conference.
He said warplanes bombed several militant bases farther north and that at least 55 militants had died in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total killed since operations began to more than 100, according to the army.
Security forces have barred most reporters from entering the area and phone lines were down, making it hard to verify the army’s account of the fighting.
Abbas also accused militants of violating the terms of a cease-fire in Swat Valley by re-establishing roadblocks, planting roadside bombs and kidnapping policemen.
An army statement in Swat said Pakistani troops repulsed an attack on a security forces checkpoint in Khwazakhela in the valley Friday.
The spokesman for the Swat Taliban could not be reached for comment.
Swat’s Taliban appear to have been emboldened after their bloody, two-year campaign in the valley led the government in February to agree to a peace accord that imposes Islamic law in the surrounding Malakand division, a wide swath which includes Swat and Buner.
Critics warn that militants, who have beheaded opponents and burned down girls schools, will manipulate the new Islamic courts to impose a draconian version of Islamic law and create a haven from which they are sure to expand.
But Pakistani leaders say setting up Islamic courts — a popular demand in Swat — will rob the militants of their main rallying call and make it easier to justify a crackdown on those who refuse to renounce violence.
Sufi Muhammad, a hardline cleric mediating the peace process, suspended his work earlier this week to protest the army operation. But he held talks with a provincial government leader Friday in the northwestern town of Timergara.
Provincial Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain said an agreement was close on the main sticking point — which senior Islamic judges should be appointed to the new courts in Malakand.
“We believe that we should seek solutions from both sides for the sake of peace,” Hussain said. “I think we are close to breaking the deadlock.”
Muhammad said the Taliban would stop fighting if their version of Islam carries the day.
“If the government enforces (Islamic law) in its true letter and spirit, I guarantee that the Taliban will lay down their arms and help restore peace in this region,” Muhammad told reporters after the meeting.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press.
Pakistani army: Taliban holding town hostage
ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani soldiers sent to halt a Taliban advance toward the Pakistani capital fought their way over a mountain pass Thursday, killed at least 14 militants and narrowly escaped a wave of suicide car bombers, the army said.
As Pakistani troops pursued an offensive praised by the United States, a burst of shootings in a southern city left dozens dead and added the specter of ethnic conflict to the Islamist violence gnawing at the nuclear-armed country’s stability.
President Asif Ali Zardari urged ordinary Pakistanis to support the operation in the Buner region so the Islamic nation would remain under “a moderate, modern and democratic state.”
Other sources said that at least 30 Civilians, Militants and Pak Military Contingents lost their lives in this fresh battle between Pak Military and Pak militants on the last days of April,(29-30th, April 2009) especially with the Taliban outfits.
The Inside story of Pakistan :: Pak Military fights hard to Pak Terrorists and Talibani outfits.
“Both sides bring us trouble: The Taliban is shelling, the army is shelling,” said Taj Mohammed, a 43-year-old farmer driving a pickup carrying more than a dozen relatives. “Why are they putting our women and children in danger? We want peace, whether it comes through the government or the Taliban.”
Security forces backed by artillery and warplanes began pushing into Buner, a district just 60 miles from Islamabad, on Tuesday after Taliban militants from the neighboring Swat Valley infiltrated the area under cover of a peace pact.
On Thursday, troops ousted militants from the Ambela Pass leading over the mountains into Buner and were inching toward the north, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
Soldiers opened fire on four suspected suicide car bombers who drove toward them near the pass, Abbas said. Two vehicles exploded while the other two managed to drive away. No troops were hurt, he said.
Troops also destroyed four militant vehicles in Dir, a district to the west, Abbas said. In all, at least 14 militants were killed and one soldier was wounded in the previous 24 hours, he said.
Abbas also said militants, who have kidnapped dozens of lightly armed police and paramilitary troops, burned a police station farther north and sealed off the town of Sultanwas.
“The people of Sultanwas are in great distress,” Abbas said at a news conference. “Nobody is being allowed to move out of Sultanwas.”
He also said militants killed a police officer and threw his body into a river in Swat, but said the peace deal centered on the valley remained “intact.”
A spokesman for the Taliban in Swat insisted they were sticking to the peace process. The militants in Buner were all local Taliban, Muslim Khan said.
“They are our friends and they have not suffered any big losses so far,” Khan said.
Security forces barred some reporters from entering Buner, and telephone connections were cut, making it hard to gain firsthand accounts of the fighting.
U.S. leaders sharply criticized Zardari’s decision to sign a law imposing Islamic law in Swat and the surrounding Malakand region in an attempt to halt two years of bloody and inconclusive fighting.
Defenders of the pact say the Islamic law concession will isolate hard-liners bent on destabilizing the country and bolster thin public support for any later crackdown.
Officials said Thursday the Islamic courts will be up and running within days, despite the growing violence.
The “time has come for the entire nation to give pause to their political differences and rise to the occasion and give full support to our security forces in this critical hour,” Zardari said in a statement. “This is the only way to demonstrate our will to keep Pakistan as a moderate, modern and democratic state where the rights of all citizens are protected.”
Pakistan’s stability is complicated by deep ethnic and sectarian tensions that are likely to grow as a result of a marked slowdown in economic growth.
Competition for jobs and political power is sharpest in Karachi, a teeming southern port with a history of ethnic violence where shooting broke out late Wednesday.
Much of the tension has been between the Pashtun population, who dominate the violence-plagued northwest, and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs descended from migrants from India.
The main Mohajir political party that runs the city, the Muttahida Quami Movement, has been outspoken against the Pashtun-dominated Taliban and has warned the militants represent a growing threat in Karachi, Pakistan’s 16 million-strong commercial hub.
The city was largely crippled Wednesday after two MQM activists were gunned down by unknown assailants, sparking street violence that had abated by dawn.
Paramilitary rangers patrolled the city’s trouble spots Thursday, as doctors and police said the death toll reached 34, with about 50 others wounded.
The Obama administration, determined to stop militants from using Pakistan as a base for attacks in Afghanistan, is asking Congress for more money to aid the Pakistani army.
In a news conference Wednesday marking his first 100 days in office, Obama said he was “gravely concerned” about Pakistan’s stability, saying the country was struggling to deliver even basic services such as health care and education.
Obama expressed confidence that Pakistan’s army would continue to keep its nuclear arsenal secure — though left the door open for U.S. action if necessary.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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