Pakistan troops secure town in Taliban-held valley

Pakistan said on Wednesday its troops seized control of the main town in the north-west region of Buner after fierce fighting with the Taliban in which more than 50 militants were killed.

The fighting came after the military on Tuesday launched a ground and air offensive in Buner, near the troubled Swat valley, to flush out militants from the area.

Troops also recovered 18 of around 70 police and paramilitaries abducted by militants in the area on Tuesday, chief military spokesperson Major General Athar Abbas told a news briefing.

“We have received reports of more than 50 casualties since yesterday,” he said, adding that troops also destroyed two explosives dumps.

Up to 500 Taliban militants entered Buner earlier this month and imposed sharia law in what the Pakistani military called a “violation” of an agreement struck earlier in the year with Islamists to bring peace to the region.

The operation to flush out the rebels and prevent them gaining ground in the troubled country had the full backing of Washington, which has put Pakistan at the heart of the battle against terrorists and al-Qaeda militants.

Abbas said troops had “successfully secured Dagar,” the main town in Buner district, but militants were occupying three police stations in nearby villages.

One security officer had died in “fierce fighting” with the militants and three others have been wounded, he added.

“We are restrained by the fact that militants have made the people of Buner hostages,” he said.

Abbas said an Arab correspondent of Al-Jazeera TV, Abdul Rehman Matar, was wounded after his vehicle was caught up in crossfire in Dagar.

“This is very unfortunate incident. He was given medical treatment and he is stable now,” the general said adding that Matar’s colleagues were safe.

Meanwhile, pro-Taliban militant cleric Maulana Fazlullah called Mingora Press Club and gave a warning to reporters “working for intelligence agencies”.

“We are not against journalists, but it is not a good thing that some reporters are working for intelligence agencies and on American agenda,” he said by telephone.

Separately, a suspected US missile strike on a vehicle in South Waziristan tribal district, bordering Afghanistan, late on Wednesday killed at least six militants.

Semi-autonomous South Waziristan is a stronghold of Pakistan’s top Taliban commander, Baitullah Mehsud, who recently threatened to avenge missile strikes with attacks across the country and in the United States.

About 370 people have died in around 39 such missile strikes since August 2008.

The latest Pakistani military operation comes after a similar offensive mounted in nearby Lower Dir over the weekend that swelled the number of people displaced by fighting in north-west Pakistan.

Washington earlier hailed the military operations as “exactly the appropriate response” to halt the Taliban’s advance in nuclear-armed Pakistan, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Islamabad in February agreed that Islamic sharia law could be enforced in Swat and its surrounding districts in a deal aimed at ending two years of a bloody rebellion led by Fazlullah.

Meanwhile, there were continuing fears for civilians made homeless by military operations in the region, with witnesses on Wednesday saying the military were using helicopters to shell suspected hideouts.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) chief Jakob Kellenberger arrived in Pakistan on Wednesday for talks with senior officials and military authorities about the humanitarian situation, officials said.

Kellenberger opened a hospital in the north-west city of Peshawar and was scheduled to visit a refugee camp in nearby Nowshehra, an ICRC spokesperson told AFP.

The offensive mounted in Lower Dir, in which around 70 militants and 10 security personnel died, has now been completed, Abbas said.

The Taliban reacted bitterly to the government operation in Buner, saying that the militants were resisting and “reserve the right to retaliate”.

They said the Swat deal remained intact until abrogated by the elderly cleric Sufi Mohammad, who had negotiated it.

“We are still abiding by the agreement. But if it is revoked by Sufi Mohammad, we will resume our jihad [holy war] against the government, like in the past,” said Muslim Khan, a local Taliban spokesperson.—AFP

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