/ 12 May 2009

Pakistan claims 700 Taliban killed in Swat

Army attacks in the Swat valley of north-west Pakistan have killed up to 700 militants, according to the country’s interior minister, amid American fears that al-Qaeda is moving to capitalise on Pakistan’s growing instability.

As government forces launched new air strikes in Swat, suicide bombers struck a checkpoint near the main north-western city of Peshawar, killing 10 people and wounding more than a dozen.

The army moved into Swat, a tourist area 16omkm from the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday. The interior minister, Rehman Malik, said the operation would continue until ”the last” Taliban fighter was ousted. Authorities have yet to say how many civilians have been killed or wounded, possibly for fear of causing a public outcry.

The Pakistani army on Monday ordered residents to flee the Swat Valley during a lull in fighting, triggering a further exodus of frightened people and raising expectations of a significant ground offensive against the Taliban.

Miles of traffic jams snaked out of the war-torn valley as tens of thousands of people fled using all available means, from donkey-drawn carts to rickshaws.

The fight is being closely watched from the United States, which fears that al-Qaeda will try to profit from Pakistan’s turmoil. Intelligence officials say the Taliban advances in Swat and Buner have helped al-Qaeda in its recruiting efforts aimed at young fighters across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

”They smell blood, and they are intoxicated by the idea of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan,” Bruce Riedel, a former analyst for the CIA, who recently led the Obama administration’s policy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan, told the New York Times.

General David Petraeus, the head of US central command, warned that the Taliban posed a threat ”to the very existence of the Pakistani state”.

Petraeus said al-Qaeda’s central leadership had moved to Pakistan but he denied that generous military aid was linked to a possible US deployment. ”This is not about us putting combat boots on the ground,” he told Fox News.

The exodus from Swat added to a humanitarian crisis that is rapidly swelling beyond earlier fears. Officials in Mardan, on the lowland plains below Swat, said 250 000 people had registered for help, more than double the total on Friday.

Including 550 000 people displaced by earlier fighting, officials said they feared as many as 1,3-million people could soon be homeless in North West Frontier province. The aid group World Vision said it had found ”intolerable” conditions in some of the six hastily opened camps, pointing to high temperatures and a lack of toilets and electricity.

The army said that between 12 000 and 15 000 security forces — regular army and paramilitary frontier corps — were stationed in Swat, pitted against between 4 000 and 5 000 Taliban guerrillas, the bulk of whom are concentrated in Mingora.

The militants used the nine-hour pause in fighting to deepen their defences against an expected army ground offensive. In Kanju, a strategically important village beside the river Swat, fighters surrounded a police checkpoint near the army-controlled city airfield.

Further along, fighters sheltered below overhangs and thickets of trees to avoid being detected by helicopter gunships. They warned residents to leave the area immediately.

Absent was the militants’ leader, the charismatic preacher Maulana Fazlullah, who villagers speculated was hiding in the Tharan valley, 16km to the west bordering Upper Dir district. Fazlullah continues, however, to make use of the FM radio broadcasts that helped him rise from obscurity two years ago, employing them to issue coded instructions to battlefield commanders and threats to perceived enemies.

The army launched its full-scale operation following the collapse of a fragile peace deal that saw militants fanning out of their Swat stronghold into neighbouring districts such as Buner and Dir. It was a fight ”for the survival of the country”, the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said on Saturday. The offensive came as Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, visited the US to reassure a nervous Obama administration that Pakistan was committed to fighting militancy.

The operation has enjoyed an unusual level of support at home, even from conservative forces previously reluctant to criticise the Taliban. A conference of religious clerics in Rawalpindi endorsed the military campaign as a ”jihad against the enemies of Islam”.

Turning points in public opinion included the release of a video showing a Taliban fighter flogging a teenage woman, and a declaration by Sufi Muhammad, a senior pro-Taliban cleric, that democracy was an ”infidel” concept.

The provincial government released the 78-year-old jihadi cleric from prison last year in the hope he would persuade the Taliban to lay down arms.

One of the few voices publicly opposing the army campaign is the former cricketer Imran Khan, who leads a small party and has aligned himself with rightwing forces in recent years.

Fears of a ”Talibanistan” in Frontier province were ”nonsense”, he said.

”This whole thing is very sinister,” he said, accusing the government of ”setting up this idea that Islamabad was being threatened and the Taliban were coming with their way of life and cutting of throats”.

Khan’s stance has antagonised left-leaning Pakistanis. ”He is very foolish,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and analyst. ”He is just trying to build up his image by criticising a military operation. But he is doing a great disservice to himself.” – guardian.co.uk