Pakistan to attack Taliban in Bin Laden’s lair

A Pakistani soldier gives his verdict on the anti-Taliban assault. The army says it has killed 750 militants
PAKISTAN is to extend its war on the Taliban beyond Swat into the fiercely independent tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda leadership are believed to be hiding.
“We’re going to go into Waziristan, all these regions, with army operations,” President Asif Ali Zardari told The Sunday Times in an interview. “Swat is just the start. It’s a larger war to fight.”
He said Pakistan would need billions of pounds in military assistance and aid for up to 1.7m refugees, the biggest movement of people since the country’s split from India in 1947.
To help take on the militants, the Pakistan army is for the first time to accept counterinsurgency training from British and American troops on its own soil.
“We need to develop our capability and we need much more support,” said Zardari. “We need much, much more than the $1 billion [military aid] we’ve been getting, which is nothing. We’ve got 150,000 troops in [the tribal areas] - just the movement of that number would cost $1 billion.”
Pakistan’s army is geared towards conventional warfare against its old enemy India. There have long been concerns in Whitehall and Washington at its ineffectiveness and lack of commitment against militants.
A British project proposed two years ago to train the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force in the tribal areas, met with resistance. Pakistan has now agreed to back this initiative and also begin training by US special forces.
Senior US officials told The Wall Street Journal that 25 to 50 special forces personnel are to be based at two new training camps in Baluchistan.
The army is planning to open new fronts in Waziristan and Darra Adam Khel. Waziristan is the headquarters of the militant Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, led by Baitullah Mehsud, who has been named as the mastermind behind the assassination of Zardari’s wife, the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.
Aid agencies have warned that more violence could add to a spiralling refugee problem. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 987,000 displaced people registered in the last two weeks, on top of 500,000 who fled fighting last summer. The commissioner, Antonio Guterres, visited the area on Friday and called for massive international support, warning the crisis could have “enormous destabilising impact”.
Zardari appealed for $1 billion in aid for refugees. “If we are to win the hearts and minds of these people we need to be able to relocate them back into civil society, rebuild their houses and give them interest-free loans to restart their businesses,” he said.
“If we don’t they will turn against the government and we will lose the impetus we’ve managed to create in the country against the Taliban.”
The exodus continued yesterday, despite claims by the army that it had cleared large parts of Buner, the district 60 miles north of Islamabad whose fall to the Taliban last month provoked American misgivings about the future of Pakistan.
Much of the region remains under curfew with the media banned from entering the conflict zones. The Sunday Times yesterday managed to reach the village of Goga and found it deserted with only 15 people remaining from a population of 4,000.
Villagers were angry at what they said was excessive use of force by the army, pointing to burnt-out lorries and cars. Carcasses of dead cattle lay on the ground and most homes had been looted.
Ziaul Abrar, a teacher who had stayed behind to guard his house, complained: “There were only 10-15 Taliban in the village but the whole place has been bombed. We were displaced, our houses destroyed, our crops destroyed and our cattle killed to target just a few militants. We want the elimination of the Taliban but this is no way to do it.”
His views were echoed by Zafar Ali from the village of Takhta Band, one of several farmers who stayed to harvest their wheat crop. He claimed that several children had been killed when Pakistani bombers strafed the area.
Artillery fire could be heard in the mountains yesterday despite assurances from Brigadier Fiaz Mehmood Qamer, who led the Frontier Corps assault on Buner two weeks ago, who urged residents to return home. “Things have gone very well,” he said. “We have secured about 80% of the area.”
The Taliban were said to be holding out in Sultan Was, a mountainous valley in Buner. All access to Swat, where the army said a house-to-house search was underway for Taliban leaders in Mingora, was banned.
A report from Amnesty International claimed that 700,000 people remain trapped in Swat. Electricity and phone lines have been cut for more than a week. Those who have managed to flee say that there is no power, even for the hospitals, because diesel fuel has run out for generators.
The Pakistani army claims to have killed more than 750 militants over the past two weeks, although there is no way of confirming this. There is no news on the fate of Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban leader in Swat known as Radio Mullah for his fiery broadcasts on his FM radio station.
Last week commandos were dropped into the densely forested mountains of Peochar, where Fazlullah’s headquarters are located. Sources said the troops were searching caves and tunnels to track him down.
Zardari insisted that the army was committed to defeating the Taliban. “I think the casualties speak for that, the displacement speaks for that,” he said.
He claimed that officers sympathetic to the militants had been purged. “I’m confident the army perceives the Taliban as much of a national threat as we do.” He added: “You cannot fight this war only on the battle[field]. You also have to fight it on the economic front - you have to offer something to the youth.”
Although most refugees say they had no sympathy for the Taliban, poor conditions in the camps are fuelling bitterness. One refugee, Amjad Khan, retired to Daggar in Buner after 27 years working as a civil servant, only to find himself fleeing a war.
“The operation robbed me of my newly built house, my fields, crops, cattle - everything,” he said.
“Alas, we are here in this desert and my wife, sons and daughters have become gypsies instead of doctors and engineers.” At least 11 people were killed when a car bomb destroyed a bus carrying handicapped children and an internet cafe in Peshawar yesterday.
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