Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Obama to hold talks on Taliban as deal unravels

The following is from CNN:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Pakistani forces were continuing their assault on the Taliban on Tuesday as the country's leader flew to Washington to discuss strategy against the militant group with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Some 500,000 civilians are expected to flee the troubled Swat Valley, heeding a government evacuation order issued Tuesday ahead of the expected offensive in the Taliban-dominated region.

The provincial government is planning to set up six new camps for the displaced people, in addition to existing camps in and around Peshawar, according to a North West Frontier Province spokesman.

The top civilian official in the region issued an order Tuesday for residents to evacuate neighborhoods in and around the Swat district capital of Mingora, which is flush with Taliban militants.

Taliban militants are marching on the streets of Mingora, threatening the lives of civilians, local administrators, and security forces, according to the Pakistani military.

Authorities in Swat lifted a curfew Tuesday between 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. to allow residents to leave the area, Swat District Coordination Officer Khushal Khan said. He noted that after Wednesday "there will be no time" for evacuations.

For the last two weeks, Pakistani troops have been battling Taliban fighters in Buner and Lower Dir, two districts bordering Swat.

Army generals claim to have killed scores of militants. The United Nations estimates more then 50,000 civilians have fled the fighting in Buner, which lies about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of the Pakistani capital.

The government has also announced a ban on the use of motorcycles in the area in northwest Pakistan. Taliban fighters often travel around the region on motorcycles.

The order was made the day before Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were due to meet Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a series of tri-lateral meetings aimed at coordinating strategy in the region.

Pakistan's assault began after Taliban militants seized territory in violation of a deal, criticized by the United States, that allowed the Taliban to implement Islamic law, or sharia, in exchange for an end to fighting.

The Pakistani government has been criticized for not cracking down on militants along its border with Afghanistan. The militant activity in the border region has led the U.S. military to carry out its own airstrikes against militant targets in Pakistan. However those strikes have rankled relations between the two countries.

Pakistan has asked the United States to supply its forces with helicopters, communication equipment and night-vision technology as part of a U.S. plan to beef up the country's counterterrorism efforts.

Obama told reporters last week that he was "gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan." iReport.com: Have a question for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari?

Speaking at a news conference capping his 100th day in office, Obama said the United States has "huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable" and doesn't end up a "nuclear-armed militant state."

Pentagon leaders have warned that the militants posed an "existential threat" to the Pakistani state while Clinton has described the situation as a "mortal danger" to global security. She also pressed the Pakistani military, which has received more than $10 billion in U.S. aid over the past decade, to do more against the Taliban.

"We're wondering why they don't just get out there and deal with these people," Clinton said. "If you lose soldiers trying to retake part of your own country, it seems to me, that's the army's mission."

On Monday U.S. senators introduced legislation tripling aid to the country, authorizing $7.5 billion in non-military aid to Pakistan over the next five years to foster economic growth and development, and another $7.5 billion for the following five years.

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