PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Pakistan’s military Wednesday said its troops seized control of the main town in the northwest Buner region after fierce fighting with the Taliban that killed more than 50 militants.
The fighting came after the military Tuesday launched a ground and air offensive in Buner, near the troubled Swat valley, to flush out militants from the area.
Earlier troops said they had also recovered 18 of around 70 police and paramilitaries abducted by militants in the Buner area Tuesday, chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a news briefing.
“We have received reports of more than 50 casualties since yesterday,” he said, adding that troops also destroyed two explosives dumps.
Meanwhile at least 20 people were killed and 24 others injured in armed clashes in Pakistan’s financial capital Karachi on Wednesday, as simmering ethnic tensions boiled over in the south of the country.
A government minister said the incidents were “targeted killings” aimed at fanning ethnic violence in Karachi.
Tensions between the ethnic Urdu-speaking Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — a coalition partner with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party — and Pashtuns from the North West Frontier Province who have settled in Karachi for jobs, have been the source of past unrest in the city.
In a statement Wednesday, Zardari condemned the violence and called on the nation to put political differences aside and support troops fighting the Taliban.
“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 in this critical hour,” Zardari said.
Up to 500 Taliban militants entered Buner earlier this month and imposed Sharia law in what the Pakistani military called a “violation” of an agreement struck earlier in the year with Islamists to bring peace to the region.
The operation to flush out the rebels and prevent them gaining ground in the troubled country had the full backing of Washington, which has put Pakistan at the heart of the battle against terrorists and Al-Qaeda militants.
Zardari said that nationwide support was critical in ensuring the protection of the rights of Pakistani citizens against Taliban advances.
“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,” Zardari said.
Earlier Abbas said troops had “successfully secured Dagar,” the main town in Buner district, but militants were occupying three police stations in nearby villages.
“We are restrained by the fact that militants have made the people of Buner hostages,” he said.
Separately, a suspected US missile strike on a vehicle in South Waziristan tribal district, bordering Afghanistan, late Wednesday killed at least six militants.
Semi-autonomous 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.
Around 370 people have died in about 39 such missile strikes since August 2008.
The latest Pakistani military operation comes after a similar offensive mounted in nearby Lower Dir over the weekend that swelled the number of people displaced by fighting in northwest Pakistan.
There were continuing fears for civilians made homeless by military operations in the region, with witnesses Wednesday saying the army was using helicopters to shell suspected hideouts.
International Committee of the Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger arrived in Pakistan Wednesday for talks with senior officials and military authorities about the humanitarian situation, officials said.
Islamabad in February agreed that Islamic Sharia law could be enforced in Swat and its surrounding districts in a deal aimed at ending two years of a bloody rebellion led by pro-Taliban militant cleric Maulana Fazlullah.
The Taliban reacted bitterly to the government operation in Buner, saying that the militants were resisting and “reserve the right to retaliate.”
They said the Swat deal remained intact until abrogated by the elderly cleric Sufi Mohammad, who had negotiated it.
Meanwhile Britain set out a new strategy on Pakistan and Afghanistan Wednesday as Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has just visited the region, announced Britain would boost forces from 8,000 to 9,000 “until the autumn.”
He described the border region between the two countries as “the crucible for global terrorism,” and said Zardari would visit Britain next month.