Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Operation launched in Buner: ISPR

ISLAMABAD :Pakistan Army and para-military forces, backed by Pakistan Air Force, have launched an offensive against militants in Buner, the second district of Malakand agency after Lower Dir, said Director-General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Athar Abbas, here on Tuesday.

70 MISCREANTS KILLED, 10 FC MEN MARTYRED IN LOWER DIR "The operation against Taliban was launched in the afternoon and the Inspector-General of Frontier Constabulary is heading the operation in which Pak Army and other paramilitary forces are taking part," said Athar Abbas while addressing an official briefing to media.Abbas said that over 70 militants were killed in Lower Dir operation, while 10 security forces personnel were martyred. He said that fighter jets of Pakistan Air Force were also taking part in the operation.

"The terrorist have compelled the government to take the action against them after they entered Buner from Swat and were building bunkers and fortifying their installations in the district," he said, adding: "About 300 militants entered Buner from Swat and captured army checkposts, initiated armed patrolling and were forcefully recruiting local youths in their militia."

Abbas told media that the government would not allow anyone to violate writ of the state, adding that a major offensive had been launched to flush out militants from Buner. He said that the miscreants had threatened the residents and restricted the women to their houses.

"The government issued warnings to them for vacation, but they ignored the warnings. The local residents were living under fear and stress in these circumstances," he added. Abbas also announced the completion of operation in Lower Dir, launched on Sunday, saying that till that time, the militants had been wiped out from the Dir district.

"Military offensive has been concluded in Lower Dir and all the militants have been flushed out from the area. In the operation 70 to 75 insurgents were killed while 10 FC men martyred," he added.

AFP ADD: the United States on Tuesday welcomed Pakistan's military operations against Taliban militants in the north-west and voiced hope the offensive would be sustained.

"We think that the military operations that are under way in Buner and Dir districts are exactly the appropriate response to the offensive operations by the Taliban and other militants over the past few weeks," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told a news conference. "We are very much encouraging of those efforts and stand ready to help them in any which way that we could."

He added that it was crucial the Pakistani military keep up the offensive and said it was unclear if Taliban forces would be pursued beyond Buner and into the Swat Valley.

"The test of all of these Pakistani military operations - because we've seen them from time to time in the past - is always their sustainability," said Morrell. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said separately that the offensive was more than a gesture of goodwill by President Asif Ali Zardari, who has faced growing criticism in Washington over his response to the militants.

"I don't think it's a question of goodwill. This is something that's in the interest of the government of Pakistan," Wood said. "These Taliban and other extremists have posed an existential threat to Pakistan.

Pakistani Military Moves to Flush Out Taliban

New York Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After a week of strong criticism here and abroad over its inaction, the Pakistani military deployed fighter jets and helicopter gunships to flush out hundreds of Taliban militants who overran the strategic district of Buner last week, the military said Tuesday.

The campaign began Tuesday after government forces completed a two-day operation against Taliban militants in a neighboring district, Dir, the military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abbas, said.

The Taliban advance into Buner, just 60 miles from the capital, not only brought heavy pressure on the military from the United States and other Western countries. But it has also fortified a growing consensus among Pakistani politicians and the general public that the Taliban have gone too far and that the military should act to contain the spread of the insurgency.

Under threat of military action, the Taliban staged a show withdrawal from Buner at the end of last week, Major General Abbas said. But he said the militants were in fact trying to expand the space they control beyond the valley of Swat, which borders Dir and Buner.

At a news conference, he played three tapes of telephone intercepts of the main Taliban leader, Mullah Fazlullah, talking to one of his commanders about making a show withdrawal for the media while telling their men to put away their weapons and lie low.

“In Buner people are living under coercion and in fear,” General Abbas said. “There was no reason to intimidate people in Buner, and the militants started intimidating people and forcibly recruiting young people to take them back to Swat for military training.”

“The government acted with patience but eventually there was no other way except to launch an operation,” General Abbas added.

Earlier in the day the chief official at the Interior Ministry, Rehman Malik, gave an indication of the tougher government stance toward the Taliban, saying that the Taliban had ignored repeated government requests to leave Buner.

“I warn them to vacate the area,” he told reporters. “We are not going to spare them. Action will be taken if anyone tries to block our efforts to re-establish the writ of the government in Buner and other areas.”

Several events contributed to the shift among politicians and the public. The televised flogging of a girl in Swat by the Taliban several weeks ago shocked many in the country. A radical cleric, Sufi Mohammed, who helped negotiate the peace deal in Swat, said recently that Pakistani institutions such as parliament and the high courts were un-Islamic, angering politicians from all parties.

Finally, the militants’ move into several new districts last week girded the Pakistani army to move against the Taliban.

The military may have a difficult fight ahead. The Taliban have already been digging trenches and fortified positions, Major General Abbas said.

There are also indications that the fighting in Dir has been heavier than Pakistani officials have acknowledged and that the civilian cost has been high. The military said some 70 militants had been killed over three days of fighting.

But over 30,000 civilians have fled their homes in the region and reported seeing bodies lying in the streets and the fields as they fled, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

Officials in a local hospital in the town of Timergara, in Dir, confirmed that five civilians had died, including two women and one girl, said Amnesty, which has been in contact with local Pakistani human rights organizations.

“Neither the Taliban nor the government forces seem to care about the well-being of the residents of Lower Dir,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director in a statement.

“The Taliban show no compunction about using civilian areas as combat zones,” he added, “even knowing that the military will respond with indiscriminate long-distance shelling and aerial bombardment.”

In the main town of Mingora, in Swat, the Taliban distributed fliers warning journalists of dire consequences if they continued reporting that criticized the Taliban or accused them of sabotaging the peace deal to introduce Islamic law, or sharia, in the area.

The fliers, which were issued by the Commander of the Suicide Bombers of the Taliban Movement of Swat, said journalists who did not cease such would be taken before sharia courts and would face “horrible consequences.”

At least two Pakistani news agencies ordered their reporters out of Swat on learning of the fliers. Four local journalists have been killed in Swat in recent months and editors said they were taking the threats very seriously.

Dir is a critical mountainous region that joins Swat to the restive tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, and Buner lies to the south and east opening the way towards the Indus River and the capital Islamabad.

By establishing government control in Dir, the military will have blocked off an escape and resource supply route to the militants in Swat. But Buner is a much bigger task. The military estimates several hundred militants have infiltrated the district from Swat since last week.

Thousands displaced in Lower Dir, says AI

PESHAWAR: The Amnesty International (AI) reported on Monday that thousands of civilians had abandoned their homes to escape clashes between security forces and Taliban in Lower Dir district.

The report says that eyewitnesses from Maidan in Lower Dir told AI that bodies were lying on the streets and fields because people were too afraid to move them. At least five civilians were confirmed dead at the district hospital in Timergara, including two women and a girl.

Several villages in Maidan, including Islamdara, Kankot, Maidan Khas and Lal Qila, seem to have been targeted by government artillery and helicopter gunship helicopters after Taliban forces fired on security forces from residential areas.

Eyewitnesses could see at least 10 houses completely destroyed while another 40 to 50 with partial damage.“Neither the Taliban nor the government forces seem to care about the well being of the residents of Lower Dir,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.

“The Taliban show no compunction about using civilian areas as combat zones, even knowing that the military will respond with indiscriminate long-distance shelling and aerial bombardment.”

The report further mentions that observers in Timergara told the AI that thousands of civilians had abandoned their homes in Maidan and moved towards neighbouring areas in Chakdara, Mardan and Charsadda.

An eyewitness in Maidan said civilians were moving through the fields to escape the firing on the main roads.A local non-governmental organisation working in Lower Dir, al-Khidmat (affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami) told AI that it had registered at least 33,000 displaced persons in the last two days.

The civilians fleeing Lower Dir would join more than half a million people already displaced by the fighting, according to the most recent figures from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

“Pakistan is now facing a serious displacement crisis, as hundreds of thousands have been forced out of their homes, including tens of thousands now living in camps formerly used to house Afghan refugees,” Zarifi said.

“While the politicians in Islamabad and Washington talk about geopolitics, people in these quiet villages have their lives shattered. It’s about time for the world to turn its attention to the people of NWFP, who are facing severe problems right now.”

The fighting in Lower Dir began when the Taliban fired at a convoy of security forces moving towards the town of Lal Qala.The report further states the local government sources told AI that eight government troops and 47 Taliban fighters had been killed, including Qari Shahid, the Taliban’s commander in the region.

However, the AI admits that it could not independently confirm the numbers of the fatalities due to the intensity of the fighting. According to local military officials, the Taliban in Lower Dir are now led by two new commanders, Hafizullah and Mullah Mansoor.

Altaf terms Talibanisation a conspiracy to split Pakistan

LONDON: Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain has termed the Talibanisation a conspiracy to break the country, urging the patriotic Pakistanis and national security agencies to stop the soaring Talibanisation.

Speaking to party’s Zonal Committee in Mirpurkhas on phone from London, he warned that Pakistan would be wiped out from world map if security agencies and people of Pakistan failed to stop the growing threat of Talibanisation.

He said that his concerns about Taliban militants are proving right as militants have fully taken over NWFP.

“I beg to all Pakistanis, particularly people of Punjab to play their role to save Pakistan from split,” he said.

GENEVA: Up to one million people are displaced in northwestern Pakistan where militants are feeding on local discontent and strife, humanitarian and local officials from Pakistan warned on Tuesday.

Officials from Pakistan's North West Frontier Province appealed for international relief aid at an unprecedented meeting with relief agencies and donor countries in Geneva.

'We are hearing a lot of pledges and promises made from the international community to Pakistan, and many of them are for security, for the police and the army, but the civilians are not getting what they are supposed to,' said Sitara Ayaz, minister for social welfare and development in the province.

'In our province we need more support and help from the international community,' she said after the two-day meeting in Geneva.

The UN's World Food Programme is working on an estimate of about 600,000 people for food aid in the area, spokewoman Emilia Casella told AFP.

Local officials put the figure at closer to one million, with about 80 per cent of them housed with friends or relatives, sometimes five or six families to a home.

'It is a serious humanitarian situation of major magnitude,' warned Dennis McNamara, an adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which organised the meeting.

'The registered UN figure for displaced civilians is over half a million. The NWFP relief commissioner says if we get registration completed it may be closer to a million in total.'

'It is a certainly a major displacement, one of the world's biggest if these figures are right,' added McNamara, a former senior UN refugee official.

A provincial minister said in Pakistan on Tuesday that around 30,000 people in the northwest have been displaced since the weekend by a military offensive to flush out Taliban militants.

Participants at the Geneva meeting said impoverished civilians were paying the price for the unrest and the humanitarian strife, and were easily wooed by militants such as the Taliban.

'They can easily be recruited, because they are bitter and they have suffered,' said one of the participants from North West Frontier Province.

Operation triggered by Taliban plan to take over Buner

ISLAMABAD: Security forces launched a major operation in Buner on Tuesday after intelligence agencies intercepted a telephone conversation of Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah with his ‘commanders’ which revealed their plan to take over the area after faking a withdrawal.

The operation led by the inspector general of Frontier Corps (FC) was being backed by army troops and air force jets, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj-Gen Athar Abbas said at a press briefing.

He said the operation in Lower Dir had been completed, around 70 militants had been killed and others flushed out of the area. He said there were some pockets of resistance which would be cleared soon.

He said the militants who had entered Buner early this month were involved in kidnapping and killing policemen and forcibly recruiting youths for training in Swat. They started building bunkers in the mountains and terrorising and intimidating local people without any justification.

He said the government had exercised restraint and demonstrated patience and warned the militants to leave the area and launched a full-scale operation as the last option.

Maj-Gen Abbas expressed the hope that the operation, launched at about 4pm on Tuesday, would be completed in one week.

The announcement came an hour after Interior Minister Rehman Malik said around 450 militants had been spotted in Buner and warned them to leave the area.

‘I warn Baitullah Mehsud that enough is enough,’ he said while talking to reporters. The minister ruled out any possibility of Taliban reaching the Margalla hills.

The ISPR chief said the objective of the operation was to eliminate and expel militants from Buner and ensure that the people of the area lived in peace without being subjected to oppression.

The recording of the conversation of Maulana Fazlullah, which was played at the briefing, indicated that the militants had no plan to move out of Buner and that they were gearing up for a showdown with security forces using mines, rockets and other weapons.

Answering a question, Maj-Gen Abbas said the terrorists posed no threat to the federal capital. ‘Distance is not the only component to measure the level of threat. Counter-capacity has to be kept in mind.’

He termed the statements expressing concern over a threat of Taliban marching on Islamabad as alarmist and said the security forces were fully capable of eliminating the terrorists.

He said there was no evidence about any foreign link of Sufi Mohammad, but heavy weapons, communication equipment and finances were reaching him.

He said security personnel were moving from various positions, adding that combat helicopters were facilitating their movement.

He declined to divulge the number of personnel taking part in the operation, saying that operational details might benefit the other side.

Maj-Gen Abbas confirmed reports about the spread of Talibanisation in southern Punjab and said the situation was being closely monitored.

He said the nuclear weapons of the country were in safe hands and there was no possibility of extremists laying their hands on them.

Meanwhile, Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani called on President Asif Ali Zardari. It is believed that they discussed the operation in Buner, situation in Swat and adjoining areas and other issues concerning national security. According to sources, the forthcoming US visit of President Zardari also came under discussion.

US move for emergency Pakistan aid package

WASHINGTON: US lawmakers — both in the Senate and the House of Representatives — said on Tuesday that they would support the Obama administration’s move to seek $200-400 million in emergency aid for Pakistan.

The package may be ready by the time President Asif Ali Zardari visits Washington on May 6 and 7. ‘Certainly, we are discussing with the administration what is needed, and I think that all of us are very concerned about what’s happening in Pakistan,’ Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters.

‘It may be appropriate, and I believe the administration is looking right now at … somewhere between two and four hundred million dollars for Pakistan,’ Senator Jon Kyl told the news conference.

He said the fund would be used for both counter-insurgency measures and for shoring up Pakistan’s volatile economy.

‘We could pass really quickly, in just a matter of days,’ said the senator when asked how soon this bill could be passed. Senator Kyl said he had been talking to the Obama administration about the idea, and favoured it. ‘They are working up a proposal ... I am hoping it will be in that range.’

Earlier, Congressman Hoyer also confirmed that congressional leaders were discussing with the administration the possibility of emergency aid to Pakistan.

Other US lawmakers, while talking to reporters, said they shared the Obama administration’s ‘deep worries’ about Pakistan’s stability and did not want to delay any legislative measure aimed at helping the country.

Congressman Hoyer said the measure could be voted on as early as next week but declined to give an exact date.

The money could either be viewed as a ‘down payment’ on $1.4 billion included for Pakistan in President Barack Obama’s proposed $83.4 billion war spending bill, which is on track or consideration this summer, or it may be moved separately ‘using executive branch mechanisms’.

The move for an emergency aid package for Islamabad gathered momentum in Congress after Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, met top House Democrats last week to brief them on gains by Taliban militants in the NWFP and Fata.

Billboards featuring women reappear in Peshawar

PESHAWAR: Despite Taliban threats for women to not appear on billboards, multinational companies have begun replacing men’s photos on advertising billboards in the provincial metropolis with those of women.

In the beginning of the Awami National Party (ANP)-led government multinational companies have started replacing men’s photos with women on billboards but due to growing Taliban activities the companies after two to three months replaced women photos with men. The Taliban and some Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) activists, whose influence is still growing in the province, considered the depiction of unveiled women to be un-Islamic and had been issuing threats that those who failed to stop this practice would face sever consequences.

Companies have now installed new billboards carrying the photos of female models on University Road, Peshawar Press Club Road and Surai Pul near the NWFP Assembly building.

Cinemas around the city have also begun displaying billboards and posters carrying photos of actresses. They had been barred from displaying movie posters by the former MMA government. He said the MMA-led regime had caused an irreparable loss to the Pashtun culture, adding that it had closed the doors of a state-run theatre during its five-year tenure.

The city’s only state-run theatre Nishar Hall closed its doors long ago to singers, dancers, and musicians, who were also barred from holding public concerts because the former ruling religious alliance in the NWFP considered this to be un-Islamic.

Shabab-e-Milli, a Jamaat-e-Islami affiliated hardliner group, headed by Sabir Hussain Awan, a former member of the National Assembly, are thought to have destroyed several billboards, causing millions of rupees of loss to companies in the province.

Malik warns Taliban to quit Buner or face action

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan warned the Taliban on Tuesday it would expand a military offensive to Buner if the guerrillas did not withdraw from the area, according to Reuters.

Prime Minister’s Advisor on the Interior Rehman Malik said around 450 Taliban were reported to have sneaked into Buner on Monday.

‘I warn them to vacate the area. We are not going to spare them,’ he told reporters.

‘Action will be taken if anyone tries to block our efforts to re-establish writ of the government in Buner and other areas,’ he said.

The interior chief also said that religious scholars must condemn menace of extremism, DawnNews adds.

Pakistani security forces launched an offensive against militants in the Lower Dir district of North West Frontier Province’s Malakand Division on Sunday to stop the militants spreading out of the Swat valley.

Military officials say around 70 militants have been killed in fighting since Sunday. Independent casualty estimates are unavailable.

Meanwhile, a delegation of Ulema (religious scholars) demanded the immediate withdrawal of the military from Malakand Division.

Buner and Swat are both in Malakand, where President Asif Ali Zardari this month reluctantly agreed to impose the Nizam-i-Adl Regulation (Sharia law) in a bid to persuade the Taliban in Swat to lay down their arms.

But emboldened by government’s concession, Taliban fighters began moving into Buner and nearby Shangla district.

Military offensive displaces 30,000 in Lower Dir

PESHAWAR: Around 30,000 people in Lower Dir have been displaced by a military offensive to flush out Taliban militants, a provincial minister said Tuesday.

‘Up to 30,000 people have left Maidan in Lower Dir district over the past few days,’ Iftikhar Hussain, the NWFP information minister, told a news conference.

‘We are making arrangements for them in Peshawar, Nowshera and Timargarah districts.’ Residents said thousands of terrified people, mostly women and children, left the area with their belongings after Pakistan troops and helicopter gunships launched the operation over the weekend.

One local charity said it had registered 2,241 displaced families so far.

The NWFP information minister has justified the Dir operation saying it was a consequence of the Taliban challenging the writ of the government.

‘The government will defend its writ but won’t make the first move,’ Hussain said.

He says the NWFP government is committed to the peace deal. Even though there are certain militants who want to sabotage the Nizam-i-Adl agreement.

‘The government needed to deploy security forces in Buner because the militants were challenging its writ,’ he added.

Around 50 insurgents were killed in the operation in Lower Dir, near the Taliban-held Swat valley, officials said.

The military said eight paramilitary soldiers had also been killed since it launched Operation Black Thunder on Sunday.

Heavy artillery shelling by the paramilitary Frontier Corps troops continued in the Maidan area of Lower Dir overnight, a senior military officer said Tuesday.

‘We destroyed several militants hideouts in heavy artillery shelling of suspected bases in the area,’ the officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.