/ 17 October 2009

Pakistan imposes curfew in South Waziristan

Pakistani authorities imposed a curfew on Saturday in the Taliban’s South Waziristan bastion ahead of an imminent assault on the al-Qaeda-linked militants.

In a show of unity in advance of the ground offensive, government and political party leaders gave the military full backing on Friday, vowing to weed out militants and restore the writ of the state.

The army has stepped up its air and artillery attacks in recent days to soften up the militants’ defences while civilians have been fleeing.

Senior government official Mohammad Khalid Khan said the curfew was to protect forces moving towards militant strongholds.

”The curfew is for the protection of military convoys and it is on the roads. The bazaars are opened,” Khan told Reuters by telephone from the nearby town of Tank.

The militants have launched a series of brazen attacks in the past 12 days, striking at the United Nations, the army headquarters, police and the general public, killing more than 150 people and apparently trying to stave off the army assault.

An intelligence official said soldiers, tanks and artillery were being taken towards militant areas. Telephone services had apparently been suspended to the region.

Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani briefed government and party leaders on Friday and they all agreed that the militants posed a serious threat to the sovereignty and integrity of the state.

”The national consensus is reaffirmed to establish and maintain the writ of the state to weed out these elements,” Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s office said.

There was no detail about the timing of the offensive.

On Saturday, roadside bombs went off near military convoys in both South and North Waziristan regions, killing three soldiers and wounding five, another intelligence official said.

The army says about 28 000 soldiers are in place to take on an estimated 10 000 hard-core Taliban. About 500 commandos arrived in the region on Friday, security officials said.

More than 80 000 civilians have fled from South Waziristan in anticipation of the offensive and the UN refugee agency said more people had left this week.

On Friday, a suicide bomber killed 12 people outside an office of the police’s Central Investigation Agency in the city of Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province, a staging post for US supplies into Afghanistan.

Pakistani Taliban made advances towards Islamabad early this year, raising fears about the stability of the US ally.

But significant military gains in the Swat valley, north-west of Islamabad, have reassured the United States and other allies about Pakistan’s commitment to the fight.

In a sign of US continuing support, President Barack Obama signed on Wednesday a $7,5-billion aid Bill for Pakistan over the next five years.

But Pakistan’s military has complained about the bill because the legislation ties some funds to fighting militants and is seen by critics as violating sovereignty.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was in Washington this week to present Pakistan’s concerns.

Democratic Senator John Kerry, an author of the bill, issued a statement stressing that the legislation did not seek to impinge on Pakistan’s sovereignty or ”micromanage any aspect of Pakistan’s military or civilian operations”.

Quershi told Parliament on Friday the country had not compromised its sovereignty and he later met army chief Kayani.

”They have seen the statement signed by Kerry … many of the fears that were expressed, concerns that were shown earlier on have been allayed by the statement which forms part of the Bill now,” Qureshi told Dawn television. – Reuters