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28 Jun 2008 10:50
Pakistani security forces on Saturday launched an offensive against Taliban militants who were threatening the main north-western city of Peshawar.
The crackdown in Khyber tribal region followed increased sightings of Taliban fighters in Peshawar, a city of three million people just a two hours drive west from the capital Islamabad.
“There has been no resistance, so far. No casualties, so far,” said Malik Naveed Khan, the police chief of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Another senior security official said the offensive was focused on nearby Bara town, close to the Afghan border.
A curfew had been ordered and roads to the town closed, he said.
Fawad Khan, a resident, told Reuters by telephone that the paramilitary troops fired three mortar shells at the hills overlooking Bara.
“People are very scared,” Khan said.
“They haven’t yet imposed a strict curfew but police are urging the people to stay inside their homes”
In Peshawar, paramilitary soldiers set up bunkers in Hayatabad, a neighbourhood close to Khyber, and patrolled the streets in vehicles mounted with machine guns.
The historic Khyber Pass provides the main road link to Afghanistan, and the region has long been known as a den for smugglers and criminals.
Islamist militants have become active in Khyber over the past year, and in recent weeks they began roaming into some neighbourhoods of Peshawar.
Riding in on the back of pick-up trucks, fighters armed with Kalashnikovs have threatened owners of music and video shops to close down, and ordered barbers to stop shaving men’s beards.
Last Saturday, they also kidnapped 25 Christians, though they released them 12 hours later.
The brazen presence of the Taliban in Peshawar stoked fears among the residents that the militants would eventually take over the city, although it is home to the main army garrison in the north-west.
Security experts said the appearance of the Taliban in Peshawar reflected the military and political failure to stop the Islamist tide rolling in from the semi-autonomous tribal areas that have become strongholds for the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
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