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Pakistan Army Moves Against Pro-Taliban Militants

By Ayaz Gul
28 June 2008

Security forces in Pakistan have begun an operation against pro-Taliban militants in a tribal region bordering Afghanistan and serving as a major route for trade and supplies to U.S-led foreign forces based there. The offensive has provoked an al-Qaida-linked self-proclaimed commander of the Pakistani Taliban to suspend peace talks with the government. From Islamabad, Ayaz Gul has more details.

Officials say paramilitary forces are leading the offensive in the Khyber tribal region and have destroyed key militant bases without any significant resistance. They say that most of the militants have retreated to mountains close to the Afghan border.

The government began the crackdown following increased sightings of Taliban militants in parts of the nearby city of Peshawar, just two hours drive from the Pakistani capital.

In a major extremist action earlier this month in the northwestern city, suspected Taliban fighters briefly kidnapped some 16 members of the minority Christian community. There were also reports of militants warning traders against video and music business.

Regional police chief, Malik Naveed Khan, tells VOA that criminal gangs were behind the kidnapping and other incidents but, as he puts it, media blew them out of proportion. He says the operation in the adjoining Khyber tribal region is meant to punish tribal criminals responsible for these attacks. The police chief says security forces are focusing on the town of Bara, which borders Peshawar.

"There were only some incursions from the tribal gangs in which unfortunately some Christians were kidnapped who were immediately released within ten hours," he explained. "And after that we strengthened our positions on the [city] borders and after that no such incident has taken place. The government has launched an operation in Bara against these miscreants, and they have successfully pushed them back and they have taken successful action against them."

Residents say that paramilitary soldiers have set up bunkers in areas of Peshawar close to the scene of military action and patrolled the streets in vehicles mounted with machine guns.

Saturday's anti-militant operation in the northwestern border region of Khyber marks the first major military action the new Pakistani government headed by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has launched.

Speaking to reporters by telephone from his stronghold in the South Waziristan tribal region, self-proclaimed commander of Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, demanded the government immediately halt the security operation.

The militant leader says he is suspending peace talks with the government and his fighters will retaliate until the offensive is stopped.

Prime Minister Gilani started the peace dialogue with militants through tribal elders several months ago to try to end militancy and violence in tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan.

Commanders of the U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan authorities have long maintained the Pakistani border regions are being used by Taliban and al-Qaida militants for attacks in Afghanistan. They have criticized the government's peace talks, saying such deals will lead to more attacks on Afghan and foreign forces.

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