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Pakistan army secures Khyber region

Latest update : 2008-06-29

The Pakistani army said it had secured the Khyber Pass area and imposed a curfew after Saturday's major offensive against Taliban groups holed up in the region. Local Islamist commander Mangal Bagh has denied any links with Taliban or al Qaeda.

 

LANDIKOTAL - Security forces have secured an area in Pakistan's Khyber region, through which a main supply route passes into Afghanistan, a day after launching an offensive to push back militants threatening Peshawar.

 

The offensive is the first major military action the new government has launched against militants since it took power after February elections, and comes after growing alarm about the consolidation and spread of militant influence in the northwest.

 

A senior government official in the region told Reuters there had been no violence since Saturday night.

 

"The situation is under control. We have destroyed at least three militant hideouts and Frontier Corps soldiers are patrolling and controlling the area," said the official, who declined to be identified.

 

The Khyber region is home to the Khyber Pass through which vital supplies for Western forces in Afghanistan pass, though the offensive is to the south and traffic from Peshawar to the border had not been affected, the official said.

 

The region had been virtually free of militant violence until this year but security has deteriorated in recent months as Islamist militants ganged up with the criminals.

 

Major-General Alam Khattack said on Saturday his forces were focused on Bara town, 15 km (10 miles) southwest of Peshawar.

 

Paramilitary troops fired mortar bombs at militants and later blew up several of their positions, including the house of militant commander, Mangal Bagh. Roads in and out of Bara have been closed and a curfew imposed.

 

A security official said one militant was killed on Saturday.

 

In recent weeks, Islamist vigilantes loyal to Bagh have been roaming into Peshawar neighbourhoods. Riding pick-up trucks, fighters wielding Kalashnikovs threatened music and video shop owners, and ordered barbers to stop shaving men's beards.

 

"GO HOME"

 

But Bagh, who an official said had moved to the remote Tirah valley before the offensive, is not allied with notorious Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, and his men are not known for crossing into Afghanistan to attack Western troops.

 

Bagh told the News newspaper by telephone his Lashkar-i-Islami (LI), or Army of Islam, would not fight the offensive: "I have told LI volunteers to go home and not resist."

 

Bagh said he did not know why security forces were attacking as his group did not harbour foreign militants or have links with the Taliban or al Qaeda.

 

Despite the curfew, Bara residents said some people were venturing out to buy supplies.

 

"Why are they carrying out this operation here if most of the militants have gone? It's useless. It's useless to destroy empty houses," resident Fawad Khan said by telephone.

 

Security experts said the appearance of the Taliban in Peshawar reflected a failure to halt an Islamist tide rolling in from Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds on the Afghan border.

 

Residents of Peshawar had begun to fear that the city could fall into the clutches of the Taliban, even though the main army garrison for the northwest is in the city of 3 million.

 

Apparently in response to the offensive in Khyber, Pakistani Taliban leader Mehsud, based in remote South Waziristan, said he was suspending talks the new government hoped could end violence.

 

Speaking by satellite phone from an undisclosed location, Mehsud voiced apprehension the offensive in Khyber was just the first of several and he threatened retaliation.

 

"The fire will not only burn in tribal areas and Frontier Province, it will engulf Punjab and Sindh also," Mehsud said.

 

In the Swat valley in Northwest Frontier Province, two soldiers were killed in a roadside blast on Sunday, the latest violence in the former tourist valley where authorities signed a  pact with militants last month.

 

A pro-government tribal elder and a former parliamentarian were shot dead in separate attacks on Saturday, police said.

Date created : 2008-06-29

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