Friday, May 15, 2009

Troops kill 55 militants, capture Taliban commander

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani troops have killed 55 militants in various parts of the Swat valley during the last 24 hours, the military said on Friday.

‘Fifty-five miscreants have been killed in various areas of Swat during the last 24 hours while three security forces personnel embraced shahdat (martyrdom) and 11 others were injured,’ it said in a statement.

‘We have confirmed reports that these Taliban terrorists after shaving off their beards and cutting their hair are fleeing from the area,’ it said.

'We request the people of Swat to identify them,' it said, while providing a telephone number for informants to call or send text messages.

Security forces also arrested an important Taliban commander, Dawa Noor, it added.

It said that Noor was involved in ‘terrorist activities’ in the Sultanwas and Daggar areas of Buner district and had been inciting residents against security forces.

Noor also played a ‘crucial role’ in facilitating the takeover of Buner district by Taliban last month.
The on-going operation against Taliban militants was launched on May 7.

France offers Pakistan nuclear energy help

PARIS :France and Pakistan have agreed to cooperate in the nuclear field, officials said Friday, with Islamabad claiming an important breakthrough in its bid to be seen as a responsible nuclear power.

Following talks between France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and his counterpart Asif Ali Zardari, the French leader's office said he had offered to help Pakistan improve its "nuclear safety" capability.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi went further, saying France had agreed to a transfer of civilian nuclear energy technology, despite international concerns over the stability of Pakistan's government.

Sarkozy's office would not comment on Qureshi's statements, and any such deal -- while a diplomatic coup for Zardari -- would need the agreement of other nuclear powers and the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.

France is a major exporter of nuclear technology, and in February agreed to supply India with between two and six modern reactors.

"France has agreed to transfer civilian nuclear technology to Pakistan," Qureshi told reporters, explaining that Pakistan was suffering an "energy crisis" and needed nuclear power to guarantee its electricity supply.

In addition to maintaining a small arsenal of nuclear armed missiles, Pakistan has a civilian nuclear energy programme developed with Chinese aid, with one working power station and another under construction.

A spokesman for the French presidency said Sarkozy had "confirmed France was ready, within the framework of its international agreements, to cooperate with Pakistan in the field of nuclear safety."

"This is so the Pakistani programme can develop in the best conditions of safety and security," he added.

And with Taliban rebels fighting increasingly fierce battles with security forces barely 100 kilometres (62 miles) outside the Pakistani capital, fears have been raised that nuclear arms could fall into militant hands.

Qureshi hailed the French offer as an important sign of his government's credibility.

"That is a significant development, and we have agreed that Pakistan should be treated like India. President Sarkozy said, and I quote him, 'What can be done for India, can be done for Pakistan as well.'," he said.

Neither India nor Pakistan, which both maintain nuclear missile arsenals, have signed the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and foreign powers were therefore forbidden from sharing technology with them.

India, however, negotiated bilateral nuclear agreements with the United States, Russia and France, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has now allowed Delhi in from the nuclear cold.

Now Pakistan wants to follow suit.

"Pakistan has no issues with the IAEA ... Pakistan will give all necessary international guarantees," Qureshi insisted.

"The world recognises the steps Pakistan has taken to assure and protect its nuclear assets. Everyone who matters is confident about our arrangements, the three-layer security system that we have put in place."

Asked when French shipments might begin, he said: "Today, in principle, the two countries agreed that there is a necessity that has to be fulfilled. In principle they've agreed, and now the modalities will be worked out."

Earlier, Zardari came away from the talks with a promise of 12 million euros (16.2 million dollars) in French aid for civilian refugees fleeing fighting between the army and Taliban rebels.

"There may be concern always everywhere, but there is support and there is confidence in the world that democracy has always delivered," said Zardari, who was elected last year after the military ceded power.

Thousands evacuate as curfew eased in Swat

SHAGUNA NAKA, Pakistan: Pakistan's military suspended a curfew Friday in Swat’s main city of Mingora where it is fighting Taliban militants, officials said, allowing tens of thousands of civilians to flee the area.

Hundreds of thousands of desperate civilians have been trying to get to safety from the Swat valley, where the army launched a new offensive late last month to crush the militants.

The government suspended a curfew for people going out of Swat's main city of Mingora from dawn until mid-afternoon, and local administration chief Arshad Khan said residents had been advised to leave — and were doing so.

‘People are leaving in large numbers,’ Khan said. ‘They are vacating their homes.’

Hundreds of vehicles including buses, cars, rickshaws, pickups and motorbikes were seen crossing the Shaguna Naka checkpoint at the exit of the conflict zone.

People sat on the roofs of buses and backs of trucks with their bedding and clothes as they headed for Mardan 30 kilometres away where authorities have set up camps for the displaced people.

‘The situation is very, very bad. We have no hope for life,’ said a young man who identified himself only as Ibrahim.

He said he came with 30 people who fled Odigram village near Mingora to escape the fighting.

‘We are going to Mardan. We are just going to sit under a tree somewhere. We just want some safety for our children,’ he said.

‘It was painful, every second we thought we were dying. There was a lot of bombing and shelling,’ he said, adding that the entire market in his village was destroyed.

The military says its forces have encircled Mingora, which is held by Taliban militants who have waged a brutal insurgency to extend their control and enforce an uncompromising version of sharia law.

There are also concerns that the army campaign — including artillery bombardment, attacks by helicopter gunships and commandos dropped behind Taliban lines — will grow more and more unpopular among Pakistani civilians.

Naeem Akhtar from Mingora who works in a bank was travelling with his wife and two children in his car riddled with bullets.

He said he was furious over the military action, and accused the army of destroying his house.

‘Four members of my family were killed in shelling. The army did it. We have spent last two weeks just like in hell…We just want out of Swat and we would find some safe place.’

An official from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which this week was able to enter one of the hardest hit districts, said there was no longer any electricity or fresh drinking water.

The military says up to 15,000 troops are taking on about 4,000 well-armed fighters in Swat, where Islamabad has ordered a battle to ‘eliminate’ the militants.

The fighting has sent more than 800,000 people fleeing Swat as well as the areas of Lower Dir and Buner, while hundreds of thousands are believed still trapped in the conflict zone.

Pakistan's military insists it is taking all possible measures to lessen civilian casualties and avoid populated areas, but analysts have warned that general public support for the offensive could sour as the human cost soars.

Before Friday, the military estimated that around 200,000 people remained in Mingora.