Thursday, May 7, 2009

Leaders seek to rally Pakistanis

The following is from Al Jazeera:

Pakistan has ordered its military to eliminate "terrorists" as air and ground troops continue to battle Taliban fighters in the country's northwest.

Attack helicopters and fighter jets bombarded suspected Taliban hideouts in the Swat valley on Thursday.

Swat is a part of the Malakand division of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, said military operations against extremists would last until "normalcy" returns to Swat.

"It is going to carry on until life in Swat comes back to normalcy," he said at the US Capitol after meeting influential senators.

Zardari's comments came after Yusuf Raza Gilani, his prime minister, urged Pakistanis to unite against extremists and support the military offensive against the Taliban.

The latest bout of fighting has all but extinguished a peace deal struck in February by the government with the Taliban fighters.

Gilani's accusation

In his televised address on Thursday, Gilani accused the Taliban of threatening Pakistan's sovereignty and volating the peace deal with attacks.

That agreement, brokered by a local religious leader, sought to put three million Pakistanis in a wide region of the NWFP under sharia law, in exchange for an end to a nearly two-year Taliban uprising.

"In order to restore honour and dignity of our homeland, and to protect people, the armed forces have been called to eliminate the militants and terrorists," Gilani said.

"The time has come when the entire nation should side by side with the government and the armed forces against those who want to make the entire country hostage and darken our future at gunpoint.

"It was agreed that militants would lay down arms ... but after the agreement violations continued. There were attacks on checkposts and... hundreds of thousands of people migrated from Swat as a result of militants' activities."

Fighting surges

The Pakistani military says it has killed more than 80 fighters in recent heavy fighting in Swat, Buner and Lower Dir, all part of Malakand.

At the same time, to avoid getting caught in the crossfire, thousands of residents have fled the three districts for the safety of camps for internally displaced people (IDP).

The army launched its major offensive on Wednesday, with reports of aerial support being used overnight into Thursday.

Al Jazeera's Sohail Rahman, reporting from the national capital Islamabad, said: "The military offensive has continued overnight and into Thursday ... our producers on the ground say the curfew in the region has been lifted and will be reimposed at midnight [18:00 GMT].

"The roads are blocked and there is very little transport for those fleeing the fighting, so they have taken to the roads on foot to reach IDP camps."

"We are also hearing reports of jet fighters being used - that will be the first time in this battle and, if true, it is a very worrying development."

Kifayatullah, the eldest son of Sufi Muhammad, who brokered the February accord, was killed in a bombardment on Thursday in Lower Dir.

Helicopter raids

Describing the fighting on Thursday, a military official said helicopter raids preceded the ground incursion to retake a forested region in Swat where a number of mines are sited.

"Security forces were being targeted from emerald mines. In retaliatory fire, 35 militants were killed," the military said in a statement on Wednesday.

Another 49 pro-Taliban fighters were reportedly killed in Buner.

Our correspondent reported that three Frontier Corps paramilitaries were killed in a Taliban assault on a checkpoint in Lower Dir. Eleven others were captured.

The military spokesman said there were also reports of a number of civilian deaths.

The government said it was preparing to shelter up to 500,000 refugees, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned of a mounting humanitarian crisis in the region.

The ICRC said that they were marshalling aid to provide for 120,000 people, but could no longer reach the areas most affected by violence.

Al Jazeera's Kamal Hyder, in Peshawar, the capital of NWFP, said: "We are getting reports that people desperate to get out of harm's way are now trying to run out of that area. Whatever transport they can get.

"While [the military's] objective is to neutralise the Taliban, the civilians are caught in the middle.

"The big question is how does the military expects to achieve its objective in a heavily populated area."

Exodus from Mingora

Khushhal Khan, the chief administration officer in Swat, said: "More than 40,000 have migrated from Mingora [Swat's main town] since Tuesday afternoon."

Many told stories of their deprivation at the hands of the Taliban and government attacks.

The Taliban said on Wednesday that it was still in control of 90 per cent of Swat.

Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman, said: "If the government launches an operation against us, we will give them a fitting reply, which it will remember for a long time."

Imtiaz Gul, head of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think-tank in Islamabad, told Al Jazeera: "This is a time when people in Pakistan realise this has now turned into a war on Pakistan and for Pakistan.

"The Pakistani military is the key to winning this war ... There is quite a clear consensus within the Pakistani ruling elite that they need to act in unison, that they need to demonstrate to the world that they are sincere in this war against the militants, which are basically attacking the foundations of this country."

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