Monday, May 18, 2009

Pakistan Calls on Taliban Militants in Swat to Lay Down Arms

By Khaleeq Ahmed

May 18 (Bloomberg) -- Pakistan called on Taliban fighters in the northwest to lay down arms as “intense” fighting erupted between the army and militants in the Swat Valley, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee.

Security forces entered the towns of Matta and Kanju near Swat’s main city and killed 25 militants in 24 hours, the military said in a statement yesterday.

The operation “is moving in the right direction and is in accordance with a set plan,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters yesterday, according to the official Associated Press of Pakistan. The Taliban “are on the run,” he added.

Pakistani troops are battling an estimated 4,000 insurgents who reneged on a February peace accord and advanced toward the capital, Islamabad, even after the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the region. The United Nations said May 15 that 907,000 people have fled fighting in the northwest since May 2.

Most of the refugees are from the Swat, Lower Dir and Buner districts, Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a telephone interview from Islamabad at the time. Thousands more are reported to have fled Swat’s main city, Mingora, when authorities relaxed a curfew in the area, she said.

The exodus of refugees is Pakistan’s biggest since independence in 1947, according to the government.

Taliban Shave Beards

Some Taliban members have shaved off their beards and cut their hair in an attempt to escape the area undetected, the military said May 15. The same day, the government rejected an offer of peace talks to end fighting with militants.

U.S. officials criticized Pakistan for signing the February agreement with the Taliban and urged the government to crack down on Islamic extremists. President Barack Obama has said a five-year aid package to Pakistan worth $1.5 billion a year would be conditional on the government tackling terrorism.

One soldier was killed and seven injured in the weekend operations in Swat, the army said. The military urged residents to help identify insurgents, saying security forces could only accurately target them “when people rise against them,” according to the statement.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is trying to build cross-party support for the offensive and plans to convene a meeting today to develop a policy for combating insurgents. Nawaz Sharif, the country’s main opposition leader, plans to attend.

Pakistan’s military first deployed in Swat, once a popular tourist destination 250 kilometers (155 miles) northwest of Islamabad, in 2007 in an effort to crush militants who set up Islamic courts. The fighters responded by beheading local officials, burning schools and banning education for girls.

Authorities agreed to appoint Islamic judges to Swat and neighboring districts under the February accord. The Taliban last month advanced to within 100 kilometers of Islamabad.

To contact the reporter on this story: Khaleeq Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan at paknews@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: May 17, 2009 20:34 EDT 

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