PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Pakistani troops backed by war planes launched a new operation in Buner town near the Swat valley Tuesday, as Islamabad intensified its efforts to flush out Taliban militants there.
The latest operation by the Pakistani military follows an offensive mounted in nearby Lower Dir over the weekend that has swelled the number of people displaced by fighting in northwest Pakistan, prompting calls for humanitarian help by local officials and aid workers.
“The army and the Frontier Corps troops have entered Buner,” chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a news conference, adding that fighter jets were also being used.
A senior military official earlier told AFP that war planes were pounding suspected militant hideouts on the mountains overlooking the town, but he had no casualty figures.
The United States, which has put Pakistan at the heart of the battle against terrorism and Al-Qaeda, hailed the military operations as “exactly the appropriate response” to halt the Taliban’s progress, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
“We are encouraging of these efforts,” Morrell said. “We hope they can sustain these operations.”
The United States has been pushing for Islamabad to crack down on the Taliban, insisting that Islamist extremists, historically supported by Pakistani intelligence, pose the greatest threat to the nuclear-armed country and not arch rival India.
The offensive mounted in Lower Dir, in which 70-75 militants and 10 security personnel died, has now been completed, Abbas said.
The major general said that while there were no foreign militants in Swat, intelligence reports said that “militants are getting weapons and communication equipment from outside Pakistan.”
“They are using Kalashnikovs, small arms, rocket launchers, grenades, mines and explosives.”
Reporters were also shown the transcript of a telephone conversation between radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah and a military commander in which they planned a “symbolic” withdrawal of militants from Buner.
The Dir military offensive has led to the displacement of around 30,000 people, said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister in the government of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Witnesses said thousands of terrified people, mostly women and children, left the area with their belongings after troops and helicopter gunships launched the operation over the weekend.
Residents in Buner said they heard bombs exploding in Karahar and Babaji Kandao, located between the districts of Swat and Buner.
In February, the government agreed that Islamic sharia law could be enforced in Swat and its surrounding districts in the Malakand region in a deal aimed at ending two years of rebellion during which followers loyal to Fazlullah beheaded opponents and torched girls’ schools.
But Abbas said that an advance by up to 500 Taliban into Buner earlier this month was a “violation” of the February agreement, and that they were harassing and terrorising the local population.
The Taliban’s advance saw Washington brand the extremists “an existential threat” to Pakistan and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that it was “basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists”.
NWFP officials appealed for international relief aid at an unprecedented meeting with relief agencies and donor countries in Geneva on Tuesday.
Up to one million people are now displaced in Pakistan’s northwest, local officials and humanitarian workers said.
The warning came as US lawmakers said the White House hopes to send up to 400 million dollars in emergency aid within days.
The Taliban suspended peace talks with Islamabad Monday after the military launched Operation Black Thunder following intense US pressure to stop the extremists’ advance.
NWFP information minister Hussain said the government remained “determined to fully implement the deal but some outsiders who do not want peace have infiltrated in Buner and Dir districts to sabotage the accord.”
He invited hardline Islamist cleric Soofi Mohammad, who negotiated the Swat sharia law deal, to resume talks to avoid any delay in its implementation.
Taliban spokesman Amir Izzat Khan earlier warned the operation in Lower Dir could endanger the peace deal.