By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 8, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 7 -- Pakistan's prime minister told the nation Thursday that the armed forces were being "called in to eliminate the militants and terrorists" who have forcibly occupied part of the country's northwest, sending thousands of civilians fleeing from the region in the past week.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani's announcement, made in a late-night, televised address, signaled the final collapse of a fragile peace accord between the government and Taliban forces in the Swat region. It also represented the civilian government's formal green light for a full-fledged offensive by the military, which until now has been fighting sporadically.
Gillani called on all Pakistanis to unite behind the armed forces "to restore the honor and dignity" of the nation, the safety of citizens and the authority of the government. "We will defend every inch of our homeland at any cost," he declared.
Gillani's address came on another day of intense but scattered clashes. Military officials said the army and other security forces had attacked militant positions with warplanes, attack helicopters and tanks. They said that they killed at least 80 Taliban fighters in Swat and Buner districts, and that nine soldiers died in an ambush and other attacks. A son of a senior Islamist leader in Swat, Sufi Mohammed, was also reported to have been killed by army shelling.
Gillani spoke here as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was finishing several days of talks in Washington with senior U.S. officials and leaders from neighboring Afghanistan in an effort to find a common strategy against the Islamist extremism that is afflicting both countries.
The announcement also came amid a massive exodus of civilians from the areas of Swat, Buner and Dir, where Taliban extremist forces have occupied villages and towns, attacked schools and police and terrorized the populace while trying to spread their radical version of Islam.
Gillani said the government has allocated $13 million to assist people fleeing from the area, in addition to assistance that is coming from the U.N. refugee agency and other charities. Camps have been set up in safe areas near the conflict zones, although Taliban fighters have blocked roads with trees and other barricades to prevent people from reaching them.
There was positive initial reaction to Gillani's speech from a variety of political leaders. Senior officials of the Awami National Party, which rules the North-West Frontier Province and sponsored the failed peace deal with the Taliban, said that the government had taken the proper action and that extremist leaders had proved to be "hypocrites" by rejecting repeated government concessions.
Gillani stressed that officials had preferred to seek dialogue to restore peace in the Swat region, despite strong international criticism of the deal, but that the militants had violated the agreement and left the government with no choice. He appealed to the world to assist the internal refugees and "enhance" the capability of Pakistan's armed forces.
The International Committee of the Red Cross warned Thursday that the humanitarian crisis in the Swat region is intensifying and that additional food, shelter and medical aid are needed to help fleeing civilians.
There has been mounting domestic and foreign criticism of the government for failing to grasp the seriousness of the militant threat. Gillani's announcement made clear that after weeks of confused policies and fading hopes for reconciliation, the government is finally coming to grips with this internal menace. "Militants who challenge the writ of the government will be crushed," Gillani declared.
Earlier Thursday, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief, said the army would commit enough of its resources to "ensure a decisive ascendancy over the militants." He also told a meeting of senior commanders that the army was committed to supporting Pakistan's democracy, which returned last year after a decade of military rule.
In Washington on Wednesday, Zardari had pledged that "Pakistan's democracy will deliver" in the war against Islamist extremism, and administration officials said they were impressed with the army's efforts in recent days.
A spokesman for Muhammad, the cleric who helped put together the failed peace deal, accused the government of unleashing the army "to appease America and get dollars." That view is shared by many Pakistanis who have seen military operations wax and wane in recent months.
As the fighting intensified Thursday, thousands of families seeking safety poured out of Swat's main town, Mingora, walking or riding in any vehicle they could find. They were aided by the temporary easing of an army curfew in the area that has trapped people there for days. But many were stopped by the Taliban barricades.
The caravans that had made it through later limped into temporary camps set up in the city of Mardan and neighboring towns. Hospitals in Mardan treated dozens of civilians, including children who had sustained gunshot and shrapnel wounds while trying to flee the fighting. Pakistani journalists described hundreds of people crowding into the camps to register for tents and supplies.