Pakistan Reports Gains Against Militants
By Barry Newhouse
29 April 2009
Pakistan's military said attack helicopters have killed more than 50 Taliban fighters in Buner district, which was overrun by militants last week.
Just 24 hours after the Pakistani military launched the operation against an estimated 500 Taliban fighters in Buner, army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said troops have taken control of the main town of Dagar and several police stations.
"Security forces successfully secured Dagar by 0800 hours today and established linkages with the present police there and the Frontier Constabulary," he announced.
General Abbas said military jets first bombed militant positions in the early stages of the operation Tuesday and then attack helicopters killed more than 50 fighters.
He said Taliban fighters are still in control of some police stations and are putting up what he called a fierce fight from some strategic mountain positions. He said at least one soldier has been killed and three wounded in the clashes.
Dozens of soldiers also are being held captive. General Abbas said 70 police and paramilitary troops were kidnapped from police stations Tuesday by Taliban fighters in Buner, but 18 of them have been recovered.
Residents in Buner contacted by VOA reported witnessing soldiers shooting to death one civilian who had disobeyed the 24-hour curfew imposed on the area.
One resident of a village just outside the main city Dagar, said that he has mainly seen helicopter gunships firing on militant positions.
"We have not seen much military presence in the streets. Troops are on hill tops and from there they move to other areas," he said.
The witness said residents are generally neutral and neither support the Taliban nor the military offensive in Buner.
Pakistan's military has struggled to battle Taliban militants in the northwest in recent years, partly because of heavy casualties on civilian populations. Previous military operations have ended in truces. Army officers have said collateral damage has turned the local population against the military.
Spokesman Abbas said militant tactics in Buner are aimed at increasing civilian deaths.
"We are operating against the miscreants who use innocent civilians as human shields. We are making all efforts to avoid collateral damage and displacement," he said.
U.S. officials, who have pressed their Pakistani counterparts to take more aggressive action against the Taliban, have welcomed the new military action. A Pentagon spokesman Tuesday called them "exactly the appropriate response" to recent Taliban offensives that have claimed more and more territory.
U.S. officials said they are considering a new aid package aimed at boosting the military's counterinsurgency capability and improving local governance.
It is unclear how many people in Buner have fled the recent army offensive. London-based human-rights organization Amnesty International estimates more than 30,000 people have fled the recent clashes. The organization said those people are joining an estimated 500,000 Pakistanis already displaced by the violence.
In Lower Dir, where the military said it has taken control from militants after launching an operation on Sunday, the government has been dropping pamphlets urging people to return to their homes and resist the Taliban.
Local media reports said few Dir residents are taking up the offer to go back home.
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