Pakistani planes bombed the Taliban in their Swat bastion on Friday, after the prime minister ordered elimination of ”militants and terrorists” and on the heels of a commitment to Washington to fight extremists.
The struggle in the scenic northwestern valley 130km from Islamabad and a former centre for tourism has become a test of Pakistan’s resolve to fight a growing Taliban insurgency that has alarmed the United States.
Helicopter gunships, fighters and troops were all involved in Swat operations, and up to 17 militants were killed after as many as 55 were killed the previous day, military officials said.
”To a rough estimate there are between 4 000 to 5 000 militants … present in Swat,” Major-General Athar Abbas, military spokesperson, said in an interview with Dawn TV.
Asked about the army’s objective, he said: ”We are looking forward to the return of the writ of the state, reestablishment of the writ.”
Militants in Swat ”know the area, the terrain is ideal for guerrilla tactics or insurgency so, therefore, they have a great advantage”, Abbas said.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani had said in an address late on Thursday that militants were trying to hold the country hostage at gunpoint.
”In order to restore honour and dignity of our homeland and to protect the people, the armed forces have been called in to eliminate the militants and terrorists,” he said.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, in talks in Washington this week, assured US President Barack Obama of Islamabad’s commitment to defeating al-Qaeda and its allies.
Pakistan efforts against militants sheltering near the border with Afghanistan are seen as vital to efforts to defeat the insurgency in that country, while increased problems with militants in areas closer to Islamabad, such as Swat, raised concern about the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting in Swat and nearby districts this week. With hundreds of thousands already displaced by earlier battles between the government and Islamist militants, aid groups said the new exodus was intensifying a humanitarian crisis.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed his deep concern about the safety of people displaced by the fighting while the International Committee of the Red Cross said a humanitarian crisis was intensifying.
Despite such problems, the view of at least some Pakistanis toward fighting the militants seemed to be shifting. In the past many were opposed to action, saying Washington wanted Islamabad to be a proxy in what was essentially a US battle.
Now an increasing number of Pakistanis view the militants as a threat to the country, although if the military is too cavalier about use of tactics and heavy weapons that cause civilian casualties that could change. The growing refugee burden could also sour sentiment.
But at the moment some are cheering on the government.
”If the government is serious in eliminating militants from Swat then we will support the military operation,” Khalid Khan, a social worker and resident of the Dheri Baba area in Swat, told Reuters.
”We are ready to make every sacrifice if the government really means business this time,” said Gul Omer, a poultry trader, referring to previous, inconclusive military action that was followed by the peace deal.
Gilani did not announce the launching of a specific offensive but said the government would not bow before terrorists and would force them to lay down their arms.
Reinforcements have been arriving in Swat as a peace pact collapsed. On Wednesday soldiers launched assaults in the outskirts of Mingora, where the Taliban occupied important buildings.
Authorities agreed in February to a Taliban demand for Islamic sharia law in the valley but the militants refused to disarm, and pushed out of Swat closer to the capital.
The Taliban ”kept on with their militant activities … abduction, intercepting the convoys, stopping the convoys, kidnappings, killings”, military spokesperson Abbas said. — Reuters