Pakistan Launches Assault on Taliban

Pakistani soldiers patrol on a road to the troubled Swat Valley. An army spokesman said 143 extremists had been killed in the previous 24 hours.
Pakistani soldiers patrol on a road to the troubled Swat Valley. An army spokesman said 143 extremists had been killed in the previous 24 hours. (By Mohammad Sajjad -- Associated Press)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 9, 2009

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, May 8 -- Pakistani military officials declared Friday that they had launched a "full-scale offensive" against extremist Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley and said that they plan to remain there until peace is restored and the area is back under government control.

The army's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said at a news conference in this garrison city that 143 extremists had been killed in the previous 24 hours. He said as many as 15,000 soldiers and other security forces were battling about 4,000 fighters, whom he referred to as "miscreants" and "anti-state elements."

Abbas said the military, which has engaged in sporadic fighting in Swat for the past week, is stepping up its actions on the orders of civilian authorities. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani announced on television Thursday night that the army had been ordered to launch a major operation against the extremists, after they refused to disarm despite an agreement with the government.

The army's announcement of a stepped-up assault came amid a continued outpouring of refugees from the conflicted region near the Afghan border. Since early this week, hundreds of thousands of people have been struggling to reach government camps hastily set up in safer districts.

Many of those attempting to flee have been stranded by crude Taliban roadblocks and a lack of transportation. Some refugees told journalists in the region Friday that they had been trapped between the Taliban and the army, or that they had been forced to walk many hours to safety.

U.N. officials in Geneva on Friday expressed concern for the welfare of up to a million people who may be displaced by the fighting, and the Pakistani government has appealed for more international support to assist them.

Military spokesmen said Friday that Taliban forces had looted banks, attacked schools and ambushed military convoys in Swat and the neighboring districts of Buner and Dir. They said Pakistani forces were fighting back with attack helicopters, tanks and ground forces.

Abbas said that the extremists were using "innovative" explosive devices, such as placing nails inside pressure cookers, and that several soldiers had been killed in the past day. He also said the Taliban had forcibly recruited young boys in Swat. "They knock on people's doors, and they give the families no choice," he said.

Abbas said he did not know how long the new operation would last, or even if it had been given a name, but he said it was limited to clearing the Swat area of all militant presence. The army has conducted similar operations in the past but then backed off amid public anger over bombing casualties and humanitarian suffering.

The army's announcement appeared coordinated with Gillani's address to reinforce the impression of civilian authority over the armed forces, after a period of public confusion and frustration over the lack of leadership by President Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari was in Washington this week to discuss the issue with top U.S. officials.

Both Gillani and Abbas stressed that the government had given ample chance for the peace accord, originally brokered in January, to succeed before turning to force. Both officials said the accord had been violated repeatedly by the fighters, who refused to disarm despite numerous government concessions. Now, Abbas said, "the people see that the government is speaking from a high moral plane."

The decision to launch the military operation has received widespread public support and has been endorsed by most major political groups. The one glaring exception is the large Jamaat-e-Islami religious party, which has protested the past two days against what it calls Pakistan's submission to an American war.

Public opinion has rapidly turned against the Taliban. Numerous commentators and political leaders have spoken this week of the extremists as being un-Islamic in their methods and aims.

Nevertheless, there is still widespread skepticism about the government's motives and the army's will to fight. The militant problem is viewed by many here as having been created by the United States in order to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the army's new offensive is also widely viewed as a show to please the United States and gain more military aid and training.

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