Pakistan appeals for unity against Taliban

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistan's leader has called on the nation to unite behind the armed forces as they pressed a new offensive against Taliban militants on Thursday north of the capital Islamabad.
President Asif Ali Zardari said the nation was facing a "critical hour" in its fight against Islamic militants linked to Al-Qaeda, and that the military offensive in the scenic Swat region was vital to protect the constitution.
"Time has come for the entire nation to give pause to their political differences and rise to the occasion and give full support to our security forces," Zardari said in a statement late Wednesday.
"This is the only way to demonstrate our will, to keep Pakistan as a moderate, modern and democratic state where the rights of all citizens are protected," he said.
Pakistani troops have this week launched a series of operations against Taliban fighters who had taken control of Lower Dir and Buner districts, only around 100 kilometres (60 miles) outside Islamabad.
Operation Black Thunder came after intense pressure from the United States, which warned the Taliban's advance south from the Swat Valley and safe-havens near the Afghan border was posing a threat to Pakistan's very existence.
The military said Wednesday that special forces troops dropped by helicopter had re-taken Dagar, the main town in Buner, and had killed up to 50 Taliban fighters.
However the military's advance on three fronts, backed by fighter jets and attack helicopters, also met fierce resistance and much of Buner, home to around one million people, remained in Taliban hands.
Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said the militants had taken over police stations in three villages and were holding 52 police officers and paramilitary soldiers hostage.
Pakistan says it has wrapped up the operation it launched at the weekend in Lower Dir. It said around 70 militants and 10 soldiers were killed, while at least 30,000 civilians had fled the area.
In February the Pakistani government largely ceded control of the Swat Valley region and agreed that Islamic sharia law could be enforced in a deal to end two years of a bloody rebellion led by radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah.
But the Taliban failed to disarm and earlier this month up to 500 Taliban militants pushed into Lower Dir and Buner, imposing sharia law and terrorising the local population.
The Taliban suspended peace talks with the government Monday after the military launched it latest military operation, and it was unclear whether February's peace deal remained intact.
The new military action has been warmly welcomed by the United States, but President Barack Obama on Wednesday again expressed concern that Pakistan's civilian government may be struggling to control the situation.
"I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not because I think that they're immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan," Obama said.
"I'm more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile," he said.
Since Obama took office the United States has ramped up missile strikes by unmanned planes targeting Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders in the northwest tribal region to the north of the Swat Valley, causing widespread anger in Pakistan.
In the latest attack, a suspected US missile strike late Wednesday on a vehicle in South Waziristan tribal district, bordering Afghanistan, killed at least six militants.
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.
American and British commanders battling the insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan have grown increasingly frustrated with Pakistan's inability to stem the flow of weapons and fighters from Pakistan's northern tribal regions.
 
 
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