By Shaiq Hussain and Imtiaz Ali
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 30, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 29 -- Pakistani paramilitary forces expanded their push into the northwestern city of Peshawar and a nearby tribal area Sunday, taking control of much of the troubled region a day after launching an attack on insurgent strongholds there.
The operation began Friday when hundreds of paramilitary troops, soldiers and police swept into Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, as Islamist insurgents massed near the city and a tribal area known as the Khyber Agency.
On Sunday, about 400 additional paramilitary troops arrived in the insurgent stronghold of Bara, the main town in Khyber Agency, and set up checkpoints across the area, according to local officials. Security forces destroyed a private jail run by insurgents and took control of several insurgent redoubts in the area.
Skirmishes between government forces and insurgents in parts of Bara continued Sunday.
A top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, vowed through a spokesman Sunday to seek revenge for the military incursion.
"If the government doesn't stop its military advancement into Khyber Agency immediately, there could be a big and bloody uprising across the whole tribal belt against the regime," said Maulvi Omar, the spokesman.
Mehsud, who, along with other top insurgent leaders, has been involved in months-long peace talks with the military, declared an end to a fragile truce negotiated before the country's newly-elected government came to power in February. About two months ago, Mehsud had called on his fighters to halt attacks in North and South Waziristan, the two tribal agencies where he holds the greatest sway.
"For us, Khyber Agency, the Waziristan agencies and the whole tribal belt is the same. We can't bear to tolerate that Pakistani forces are shelling our brothers in Khyber Agency," Omar said, accusing the government of being "insincere" about the peace process.
"On one hand, the government is talking about peace and dialogue. While on the other hand, it is sending more and more troops to tribal areas and starting fresh military operations," Omar said. "This is not working and that's why we said goodbye to all peace talks with the government."
The military-led attack on Khyber Agency over the weekend forced hundreds of insurgents under the command of extremist leader Mangal Bagh to retreat to the remote Tirah Valley, a rugged patch of land near the Afghan border. Bagh, who recently rose to power in the region, ordered fighters in his Lashkar-e-Islam militia to stand down during a broadcast on his pirate radio station in Khyber Agency on Saturday. Several of his commanders issued similar orders in and around Bara.
"We are not militants, and that's why we are not resisting the Pakistani forces," said Misri Khan, a Lashkar-e-Islam commander. "They are like our brothers. So why should we fight them?"
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Alam Khattak, commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, has said he expects the operation to continue for several days.
Some officials in the provincial government of the North-West Frontier Province said the strike on insurgents was long overdue.
"We are fully supporting the military offensive in Khyber Agency because it is for the protection of the people of Peshawar and the rest of the people of the Frontier Province," said Rahimdad Khan, a senior provincial minister.
Correspondent Candace Rondeaux in Kabul contributed to this report.