Taliban unleash ‘reign of terror’ in Pakistan

The Taliban in Pakistan have moved to within 100km of Islamabad, officials say, sparking global concern about the nuclear-armed nation’s ability to rein in the Islamists.

Taliban militants on Thursday patrolled the streets of Buner district north-west of the capital, officials and witnesses said, warning residents not to engage in ”un-Islamic” activity and barring women from public places.

”Local police are helpless and seem to have lost control,” said resident Shams Buneri. ”Taliban are moving freely everywhere in the town.”

Buner police official Rasheed Khan confirmed to AFP that Taliban fighters were patrolling the streets unchecked, but added that district government officials were in negotiations to put an end to the militant occupation.

Bid to end deadly violence
The extremists moved into the district from the Swat valley, where Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari recently signed a deal allowing the implementation of strict Islamic law in a bid to end a two-year campaign of deadly violence.

That accord has caused alarm in Washington, where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Taliban advances posed an ”existential threat” to the survival of Pakistan, a key US ally in the fight against al-Qaeda.

On Wednesday she called on the Pakistani people ”to speak out forcefully against a policy that is ceding more and more territory to the insurgents, to the Taliban, to al-Qaeda, to the allies that are in this terrorist syndicate”.

US President Barack Obama is to meet with Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in early May, with efforts to clear Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border high on the agenda.

The top US military commander, Admiral Mike Mullen, arrived in Islamabad for talks with Pakistani officials as concerns mounted over the government’s ability to check the Taliban’s advances toward the capital, officials said.

”Pakistan — it’s a country that has nuclear weapons. My long-term worry is that descent … should it continue, gives us the worst possible outcome there,” Mullen said.

But Pakistani authorities have rejected suggestions that they need outside military help to combat the insurgent threat.

”Pakistan … has one of the largest armies in the world,” the country’s ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, told CNN.

”The military is capable of dealing with the insurgency.”

Pakistan’s central government lost control in Swat, a former ski resort and jewel in the crown of Pakistani tourism, after a violent two-year militant campaign to enforce strict sharia law.

It agreed to allow sharia courts in Malakand, a district of some three million people in North West Frontier Province that includes the Swat valley, in order to halt the violence.

Extremist attacks
More than 1 800 people have been killed in a wave of extremist attacks across Pakistan since July 2007, when the military stormed the Islamist-occupied Red Mosque in Islamabad.

In late December, at least 41 people were killed in a suicide car blast at a polling station in Buner — one of the deadliest bombings in Pakistan in the past year. Taliban-linked extremists claimed responsibility for the attack.

Residents in Buner said masked Taliban were asking people in the streets to support them in their efforts to implement sharia law, as announcements blared from mosques that un-Islamic activity would no longer be tolerated.

Banners were hung in the town, telling women not to go to markets and public places and warning men not to shave off their beards.

A Taliban commander said militants would set up sharia courts in Buner as they have done in Swat, but would not interfere with police work.

”They [Taliban] have unleashed a reign of terror in Buner and set up their checkpoints,” a local politician and former provincial lawmaker, Karim Babak, told AFP.

”This situation has triggered a great deal of panic among the local population.” — Sapa-AFP

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