Pakistan launches new offensive

April 26, 2009 11:25:54 AM PDT
Pakistan launched an operation against militants Sunday in a district covered by a government-backed peace deal, threatening the survival of a pact that raised U.S. concerns about the nuclear-armed nation's willingness to confront the insurgents. A top government official insisted the deal remained "intact" and denied American pressure prompted the offensive, while another warned that the Taliban in a valley that was the focus of the deal must disarm or "face action."

A military statement said the offensive in Lower Dir had already killed "scores" of militants, including a commander, and left at least one paramilitary soldier dead. It said the operation was launched at the request of the provincial government and local residents, but did not give details of exactly what it entailed or how many troops were involved.

Television footage from the district showed at least two helicopter gunships heading toward the mountains. Troops guarded a road blocked with paramilitary trucks, while some families sat nearby. Another family headed away in a vehicle full of luggage.

The Dir region neighbors Afghanistan and the beleaguered Swat Valley. The government agreed to impose Islamic law in Swat and the surrounding districts that make up Malakand Division if the Taliban there would end their violent campaign in the one-time tourist haven.

In recent days, Taliban forces from Swat began entering Buner, a neighboring district which lies just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Officials said most of the insurgents pulled out of Buner on Friday amid reports of possible military action, and threats that the government would scrap the deal.

The decision to attack militant hideouts in Lower Dir was something of a surprise, though reports of a rising militant presence there and in Upper Dir have been growing.

Losing either district of Dir to militants would be a significant not only for Pakistan but also for the U.S. because a part of the region borders Afghanistan, where the U.S. is sending thousands more troops to shore up the faltering war effort.

The Dir region lies above Bajur, a tribal area where the military staged another offensive. Many of the militants now in Dir may have come from Bajur.

It was unclear if Swat militants were in Dir, though they have been reported in nearby districts other than Buner. The Swat Taliban spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, insisted that a military offensive did not render the peace agreement moot.

He said the government would fulfill its pledge to establish Islamic courts in Malakand, a long-standing demand of local residents exhausted by the inefficient regular judicial system - and a grievance exploited by the Taliban. Still, Babar added, the government would not tolerate militants' spread.

"The peace deal is intact - the government has not revoked the peace deal," Babar said. "At the same time the government is determined to root out the militants hell-bent on destroying the law and order situation."

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik, the country's top civilian security official, had harsher words, even speaking of the deal in past tense when saying the Swat militants had to disarm.

"Enough is enough," Malik said. "There is no option for them except to lay down their arms, because the government is serious now to flush them out."

The Pakistani military's ability or willingness to take on the Taliban has been questioned by some top U.S. officials in recent days, even as they ponder giving Pakistan billions more in military and other aid.

Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said Pakistan's leaders should focus on the looming threat posed by extremists within their borders, instead of their rivalry with India.

"The most important, most pressing threat to the very existence of their country is the threat posed by the internal extremists and groups such as the Taliban and the syndicated extremists," Petraeus told a congressional panel Friday.

Babar said the offensive Sunday had nothing to do with American pressure.

"There is no question of pressure by anybody," Babar said.

Some two years worth of clashes between the military and insurgents in Swat killed hundreds of people and displaced up to a third of the valley's 1.5 million people.

U.S. officials and many Pakistani critics view the Swat pact as a capitulation before extremists who have beheaded opponents, burned girls schools and said they would welcome and protect Osama bin Laden.

Western officials also worry that Swat could turn into an expanding haven for al-Qaida allies.

The deal's supporters argue that the concession on Islamic law robs hard-liners of any justification for continuing to bear arms.

Also Sunday, a group of NATO destroyers and frigates arrived in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi ahead of two days worth of exercises with the Pakistani navy that focus on counterterrorism and battling piracy.

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