Monday, April 27, 2009

Full-scale military operation likely in Buner

PESHAWAR: The army is gearing up for launching a full-scale military operation in the strategically located Buner district to defeat the militants and secure control of the area to block their possible advances to other areas, particularly Hazara, official sources told The News on Monday.

“Preparations have been completed for the operation in which air attacks will also be carried out,” sources said. “Air squadron is ready, two brigade army troops are arriving while Frontier Constabulary is already in Buner,” the sources having knowledge of the changing security situation in Malakand region, said.

The government launched a first-ever terrorism-related operation in Maidan area of Lower Dir district to kill or capture militants who have been menacing the peace of the area. The security forces claimed to have killed 46 militants in the two-day action in Lal Qila and Islamdara areas. In Dir, they have also been using gunship helicopters to pound the suspected positions of the militants.

Swat militants, after having a pause in fighting in the valley in the wake of a peace deal, advanced into Buner and Shangla districts. They also provided support to the militants in Lower Dir and Upper Dir to make them able to entrench positions in their respective areas.

Commander Hafizullah, probably a code name and Maulana Amir Khitab, believed to be Afghan, have been leading militants in Lower Dir and Upper Dir, respectively. However, at the moment militant activities in Upper Dir have not been the matter of concern for the security people. The government and military are desperate to clear Buner and Shangla districts of the militants and secure the control of these districts to block further advances by militants, who could threaten key sites of the country.

Maulana Fazlullah-led militants entered Buner district in the first week of April and secured a firm control of the district after a clash in Gokand. After that incident, it was a walkover for them. The militants control caused concern domestically and internationally, forcing the government to take action to neutralise the growing threat. The militants pulled out of Buner district to stave off military operation, but government seems unwilling to trust the militants.

Frontier Constabulary was moved a few days back to Buner to protect government buildings and installations. However, now the government has decided to launch an all-out military operation in Buner to eliminate or flush militants out of the district. Official sources said that Frontier Corps and army troops would take part in the operation. For the purpose, they added, two brigade army troops were arriving in the troubled district. “The operation could be started in the next few days,” the sources said, avoiding giving an exact date for launching action.

A jirga in Buner, the other day, asked militants to stop their activities and demanded of the government not to send security forces to the district.

Air strikes on the positions of the militants, which had been identified, would be carried out. “The air squadron is ready,” sources claimed. These officials said that entry points to Buner from Swabi, Malakand and other districts would be pounded. “Forces will also attack their positions in Sultanwas, Pir Baba, Swarai and other areas.”

The Inspector General of FC was Monday reported to have said that militants were holding sway on 10 to 15 per cent areas of Buner. Some commanders from Swat, sources said, were leading the militants in Buner. The sources believed majority of the militants had come from Swat while they had also recruited locals in their militia. “Militants strength is between 700 and 800,” the sources said.

They also hinted at resumption of military operation in Swat valley. “Militants are not honouring the peace agreement. The armed patrol, display of arms and their other activities continue. We want the militants to stop all these activities to keep the word they have given in peace agreement,” the sources said. However, if they did not mend their way, sources said, action would be launched to defeat them.

“The forces have already started Tor Tandar operation in Lower Dir. We will engage them in Dir, Buner and Swat simultaneously to not allow them space to move. We will eliminate them,” sources claimed. Military spokesman, Maj General Athar Abbas, did not receive calls to confirm or deny the looming operation in Buner.

Brown urges firmer Pakistan links

Gordon Brown has called for a "stronger relationship" between the UK and Pakistan to fight the threat posed by extremism and terrorism.
Speaking in Islamabad, the prime minister said a "strategic dialogue on all the issues" was needed.Mr Brown, standing beside Pakistani PM Yusuf Raza Gilani, pledged £10m to fight extremism in the country.Earlier, Pakistan's president pulled out of a joint news conference, amid tensions over recent anti-terror raids.
Sources suggest Asif Zardari was unhappy with the fallout from operations in the UK earlier this month, in which 11 Pakistani nationals were arrested.Mr Brown still met the president but his press conference instead took place with Mr Gilani, with whom he also held talks.
'Not disrupted'

Operation Pathway - the anti-terrorist operation which took place recently in Liverpool, Manchester and Clitheroe - saw Pakistani nationals arrested and later released without charge.

Ten of the them are in Britain on student visas but are now facing possible deportation proceedings, something which has already been criticised by Pakistan's high commissioner in London, who said they should be allowed to complete their studies.

“ It is imperative that all NATO nations strongly consider how they can help us to fill the manning and capability shortfalls ”
US general David McKiernan
At the press conference, this was echoed by Mr Gilani, who said: "I think the law will take its own course and I would also request of the prime minister that their studies should not be disrupted."

Mr Brown said: "Today we have agreed a new and stronger relationship between our two countries - vital and urgent work we will undertake together which sets out our shared priorities of tackling violent extremism.

"We will support each other more strongly on counter terrorism activities. We will engage in a strategic dialogue on all the issues surrounding this and we will consider task forces and work streams that will deliver that strategic dialogue for us.

"And we will support this close co-operation immediately by the UK delivering a £10m package of counter terrorism capacity giving assistance to Pakistan's agencies."

'Chain of terror'

Mr Brown earlier went to Afghanistan's Helmand province, where he met British troops.

After talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, he announced a new strategy for dealing with terrorism across border areas with Pakistan.

Mr Brown warned of a "chain of terror" starting in the mountainous region and ending in capital cities worldwide.

He said the UK wanted provinces to be handed over to government control one by one - similar to the process in Iraq.

Mr Brown said he also wanted to see the Afghan army expanded from 75,000 to 135,000-strong by the end of 2011, as well as seeing thousands more police.

Meanwhile, US general David McKiernan, in charge of NATO's operation in Afghanistan, has warned of rising military and civilian casualties.

Writing in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, he said the arrival of thousands of additional US troops in the coming months would probably lead to "another sizeable increase in kinetic activity" in 2009 "as the new troops move into new areas to help protect the population and engage the enemy."

He called the likely increase in civilian and NATO casualties "regrettable", but said it would not indicate deteriorating security.

The general said the insurgency was not spreading, noting that 70% of the violence in 2008 took place in 10% of the districts.

He added: "It is imperative that all NATO nations strongly consider how they can help us to fill the manning and capability shortfalls".

He condemned the practice of countries applying so-called "national caveats" to their NATO contributions in Afghanistan.

And Pakistan's military had to "take the lead" in removing extremists from "insurgent sanctuaries" on its territory, he said.

NWFP(PUKHTUNKHWA) govt tells Taliban to leave Buner or face action

NWFP govt tells Taliban to leave Buner or face action
MINGORA: NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar on Monday warned the Taliban of military action if they did not leave Buner district. “Leave Buner or face action,” the minister said while addressing a news conference in Timergara where new Malakand Commissioner Fazal Rahim Khattak was also present. The minister said the provincial government had received reports of presence of “foreign militants” in Buner, where some of the Taliban had been speaking languages the locals could not understand. The foreigners are likely Uzbeks, Chechens or Arabs. The minister said there was no military operation going on in Lower Dir, the state-run APP reported, adding that the clashes there were “retaliation to the attack by miscreants on the security forces”. The armed forces were present in Malakand division “only to maintain peace and harmony”, the news agency quoted him as telling the reporters.

Pakistan says don't 'panic'

ISLAMABAD— A Pakistani military offensive against insurgent hideouts prompted suspension of controversial peace talks with the Taliban Monday, and the country's president sought additional foreign aid to assure its nuclear arms remain in "safe hands."
The developments came as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, calling their shared border region a "crucible of terrorism."
Following the military push into Dir, a district on the Afghanistan border, militants described their peace pact with the government as "worthless," threatening a cease-fire the Obama administration has criticized as a capitulation to allies of al-Qaida.
Pakistan agreed in February to impose Islamic law in the Taliban-held Swat Valley and surrounding districts of the Malakand Division if militants ended a rebellion that included beheading opponents and burning schools for girls.
However, the concession appeared to embolden the Taliban, which staged a foray last week into neighboring Buner district, just 60 miles from the capital, reportedly patrolling other areas in the region as well.
Pressure on the deal grew Sunday when authorities sent troops backed by artillery and helicopter gunships to attack militants in Lower Dir, another district covered by the pact. Thousands of terrified residents fled, some clutching only a few belongings.
The military said the offensive was an attempt to stop insurgents who had plunged the area into lawlessness by attacking security forces and abducting prominent people for ransom. Losing either Lower or Upper Dir would be a blow not only for Pakistan but for U.S. efforts to shore up the faltering war effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
At least 46 militants were killed in the operation, the army said in a statement Monday. Maulvi Umar, a spokesman for the umbrella group of Pakistan's Taliban, claimed insurgents were in the area and killed nine troops and lost two of their own.
"The agreements with the Pakistan government are worthless because Pakistani rulers are acting to please Americans," said Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman in the Swat Valley.
He denounced the military's operation as a violation of the peace pact and said fighters were on alert in case the agreement was pronounced dead by Sufi Muhammad, a hard-line cleric who mediated the deal.
A spokesman for the cleric said he was trapped in his home in the same area of Lower Dir attacked by troops and that his supporters have been unable to contact him.
"We will not hold any talks until the operation ends," spokesman Amir Izzat Khan said.
American officials worry the pact could turn Swat into another haven for militants and encourage extremists to call for Islamic law in other areas of the country.
Western allies have expressed frustration that Pakistan is focusing on archrival India, distracting the government from dealing with extremist sanctuaries on the Afghan border.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari insisted Monday his country was doing what it must to root out domestic militants.
In a wide-ranging interview with reporters from foreign media outlets, Zardari said Pakistan's nuclear capabilities were in "safe hands," but called for more foreign support for his cash-strapped country to prevent any danger of that changing.
"If Pakistan fails, if democracy fails, if the world doesn't help democracy, then any eventuality is a possibility," he said.
Zardari also said Pakistani intelligence thought al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden might be dead, but cautioned there was no proof.
"He may be dead. But that's been said before," Zardari said. "It's still between fiction and fact."
After visiting British troops in Afghanistan Monday, Brown said the safety of the Western world was tied to events in the beleaguered frontier region.
"Stability on the streets of London depends on stability in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan," Brown said. The border areas "are the breeding ground, the crucible of terrorism."
In Islamabad, Brown said Britain would focus its aid on providing services in the impoverished northwest — with a particular emphasis on girls' schooling — to lessen the allure of extremism.
American officials have also expressed rising concern.
Dianne Feinstein, head of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday the Taliban advance in Buner — and the lack of a robust military response — suggested Pakistan was "in very deep trouble."
"This thing has to get sorted out and sorted out quickly or you could lose the government of Pakistan," Feinstein said on CNN television.
Pakistan's foreign minister asked U.S. officials Monday to "not panic."
"We mean business, and if we have to use force we will use force. We will not hesitate," Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the AP on the sidelines of meetings with his Afghan and Iranian counterparts. "We will not surrender, we will not capitulate, and we will not abdicate."
Zardari tossed aside suggestions that U.S. pressure was what prompted the latest military offensive, saying, "I don't think the Americans micromanage situations on the ground."
He also said other offensives in the region were possible.

‘Pakistan nuclear arsenal in safe hands’: Zardari

ISLAMABAD: President Asif Ali Zardari said on Monday that Pakistan's nuclear installations are in safe hands.

"All Pakistani nuclear installations are under extra security," he told foreign media in an interview. "I want to assure the world that nuclear capabilities in Pakistan are in safe hands," he said.

Zardari said that Pakistani intelligence believes Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is dead but acknowledged they had no evidence.

"The Americans tell me they don't know, and they are much more equipped than us to trace him. And our own intelligence services obviously think that he does not exist any more, that he is dead," Zardari said.

"But there is no evidence, you cannot take that as a fact," he said. "We are between facts and fiction."

Zardari was responding to reports that Pakistani Taliban in the troubled Swat valley have said they would welcome bin Laden if he wants to visit the former Pakistani hill resort which is now in the hands of Taliban.

Taliban shave men for listening to music in Buner

PESHAWAR: Taliban militants in Buner district shaved the heads and moustaches of four Pakistani men as punishment for listening to music, one of the men said Sunday.

Although Taliban and local officials said the fighters retreated from Buner by Saturday, local members of the movement remain. Residents said many fighters were still present in the hilly outskirts of the district.

In one incident late Saturday, Taliban hardliners shaved the heads and moustaches of four men for listening to music, a young man from Buner told AFP by telephone, requesting not to be identified.

‘I was with three other friends in my car, listening to music when armed Taliban stopped us and, after smashing cassettes and the cassette player, they shaved half our heads and moustaches,’ he said.

‘The Taliban also beat us and asked us not to listen to music ever again,’ said the terrified man.

Local police said they had no information about the incident.

The victim said neither he nor his friends lodged a complaint with police, as this would have been ‘useless.’

‘It might have annoyed the Taliban further and I fear for my life,’ the man said.

Residents in Mingora, the main town in Swat, said Taliban posters had been put up in streets and markets ordering women not to go shopping. The posters had appeared after the Taliban’s controversial agreement with the government to enforce Islamic law in the region.

‘We will take action against women who go out shopping in the markets and any shopkeeper seen dealing with women shoppers will be dealt with severely,’ read the poster from the Swat branch of Tehrik-i-Taliban.

‘The peace agreement does not mean that obscenity should be re-born,’ it added.

Extremist Taliban consider it ‘obscene’ for women to leave their homes, and ban females from venturing out in public without an immediate male relative — namely a father, brother, son or husband.

For years, Swat was a popular ski resort frequented by Westerners but the Pakistani government effectively lost control of the mountainous district after the violent Taliban campaign to enforce Sharia law.

Taliban still occupying parts of Buner: FC

PESHAWAR: Taliban militants have refused to leave Buner completely and are coercing the local population to support them.

The Frontier Corps (FC) Commandant says the Taliban occupy at least 10 to 15 per cent of Buner.

Citing intelligence reports, senior security officials have said the Taliban coerced local tribal elders in Buner to announce support for the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Security officials told DawnNews that even though not displaying weapons, militants were present during a meeting of the local council of elders on Sunday to announce conditional support for the TTP.

Earlier, the District Police Officer of Buner also said a number of foreign and local Taliban militants were still present in the area despite claims by the local militant leadership that they were withdrawing from Buner.

Officials say the Taliban had moved into Buner from Swat, and they continue to take violent action against the people in at least two villages who had initially formed an armed lashkar to resist their advances.