/ 23 January 2009

Taliban kill three in roadside bomb blast

Three civilians were killed and a soldier wounded in a roadside bomb blast in Pakistan’s Swat Valley on Friday as the government pondered its options for wresting control of the valley from Islamist militants.

The scenic valley was until recently one of Pakistan’s prime tourist destinations but militants aiming to impose a harsh form of Islamic law began battling security forces in 2007 and are now virtually in complete control, residents say.

The Islamists’ grip on the valley, just 130km northwest of Islamabad and not on the lawless Afghan border, highlights Pakistan’s deteriorating security and the problem facing new United States envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke.

The bomb went off on the outskirts of the valley’s main town of Mingora as a security patrol was passing a day after security forces killed 11 militants in clashes in nearby districts.

”All three were passersby,” a military official in Swat said of the victims who included a woman.

Many of the militants in Swat infiltrated from al-Qaeda and Taliban enclaves in ethnic Pashtun lands on the Afghan border to support a radical cleric, Mullah Fazlullah.

They have shot, blown up or beheaded their opponents, banned girls from classes and destroyed about 170 schools while broadcasting edicts and threats over their illegal FM radio.

They have threatened to throw acid at men who do not grow beards and recently murdered a woman singer.

While dismayed by the spread of militant influence and violence, many valley residents are equally frustrated with the failure of the authorities to stop them.

”Hatred against the Taliban … is at an all-time high and so is disappointment, even resentment, about the Pakistani army for its failure to stop the Taliban,” academic Farhat Taj wrote in the News newspaper on Friday.

”Sick and tired”
The military launched a big offensive in Swat in late 2007. The militants withdrew up remote side valleys to avoid government artillery and slipped back when the offensive ended.

Another offensive was launched in August but that too has had little impact.

Members of Parliament this week decried the state of affairs, passing a resolution expressing solidarity with the valley’s people and pledging to ”stand up for the protection of their rights in the face of the onslaught by non-state actors”.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told Parliament military action alone could not end violence in the country and the government would consult political leaders as well as the military on a plan.

President Asif Ali Zardari met security chiefs and politicians on Thursday to discuss the violence in Swat and elsewhere in the northwest and said the government was following a ”three D” policy of dialogue, development and deterrence.

”Dialogue for a political settlement in the disturbed regions with those who would not challenge the writ of the state is an element of the government strategy,” the president said.

Authorities have struck short-lived peace deals in the Pashtun northwest in the past but the US and others say pacts have merely provided breathing space to militants to regroup and attack across the border into Afghanistan.

Talks are popular with many Pakistanis who see the US-led campaign against militancy as an unjust fight against Muslims.

But not all Pakistanis think that way.

Taj said dialogue would not end ”Taliban atrocities”.

”The Pashtun are sick and tired of this dialogue and the so-called peace agreements with the Taliban. They want the Taliban brought by force under Pakistani law,” Taj said.

”Stop drone attacks”
Also on Friday about 1 500 protesters demanded an end to Pakistan military operations and US missile attacks against Taliban militants in lawless areas bordering Afghanistan, witnesses said.

Tribesmen were among those who took part in the demonstration near the federal Parliament in Islamabad, organised by Pakistan’s main Islamist party Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).

The protesters shouted ”Allahu akbar” (God is greater), ”no to military operations in tribal areas” and ”stop drone attacks”.

”Unrest started in Pakistan because the government adopted pro-US policies and I see no end to this until Pakistan abandons pro-US policies,” JI chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed told demonstrators.

He criticised as deception new US President Barack Obama’s announcement that the notorious US detention centre, Guantánamo Bay, will be closed within a year.

”They are deceiving people, they say they will close Guántanamo prison in one year. Who knows what the circumstances will be in one year?

”It is again Zionist and prejudiced people who have gathered around Obama,” the firebrand leader said. – Reuters and Sapa-AFP