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Key victory against Taliban after a 6-month battle

Video by Nicholas RUSHWORTH

Latest update : 2009-03-01

Pakistan military claimed a key victory against the Taliban in the remote district of Bajaur, where it had been fighting a six-month battle against the Al-Qaeda ally. Hundreds were said to be killed during the conflict in the Afghan-bordering area.

AFP - Pakistan said on Saturday it had forced Taliban militants out of a key battleground in the global fight against extremism and boasted of major gains in another region bordering Afghanistan.
The six-month battle with Islamist insurgents in the remote Bajaur district is seen as pivotal to the country's fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, after bombings have killed more than 1,600 people in less than two years.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan's government launched the Bajaur offensive in August amid heavy criticism from US and Afghan officials who say it is not doing enough to stop militants crossing into Afghanistan to attack foreign troops.
Heavy artillery and helicopter gunships have pounded Bajaur, one of Pakistan's seven federally-administered tribal areas (FATA) along the Afghan border, in a bid to flush out militant bases, killing hundreds.
"We think that we have secured this agency (district)," said Major General Tariq Khan, the commander of forces fighting in Bajaur.
"They have lost. They have lost their cohesion out here," Khan told reporters flown by helicopters from the capital, Islamabad.
A Pakistani army colonel named Saifullah, who gave only one name, said the military had also beaten back militants in the neighbouring tribal area of Mohmand, also on the Afghan border, where security forces have been waging lower-level offensives.
"Now the people's minds are clear. They now believe in the strength of the force and the resolve of the government that this militancy is being pursued and is being finished," he told reporters in Ghallanai.
"The influence of militants has reduced over a major proportion of the population and area," the colonel added.
Pakistan is facing increased US pressure to clampdown on militant hideouts with President Barack Obama deploying an extra 17,000 troops to Afghanistan as part of a major shift in its action against global terrorist networks from Iraq to south Asia.
There was no independent verification of the Bajaur victory but the Taliban see the district as a key strategic district they cannot not afford to lose, analysts have said.
To the east is Swat, where the Taliban have called an indefinite ceasefire following a nearly two-year insurgency, while on the Afghan side is a long frontier with the Taliban hotspot of Kunar province.
Khan recommended fencing the rugged and porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent the cross-border movement of Taliban militants.
He said troops would withdraw gradually but not pull out for some time, speculating that military operations in five of Pakistan's seven wild tribal districts could finish by the end of the year.
In Bajaur, 97 soldiers from the Pakistan army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps have been killed, while 404 troops were injured, he said.
Khan said about 50 percent of the militants were Afghans and some Sudanese and Egyptians had been killed in Bajaur in the initial stages of operation.
He described a unilateral ceasefire declared by the Taliban on Monday as "a face-saving statement".
"There was no question of ceasefire, the resistance has melted, dissolved. It is not there," he said.
Shafir Ullah, the chief of the Bajaur civil administration, said 1,600 militants were killed during the campaign and more than 2,000 injured while some 150 civilians also died and about 2,000 were injured in the fighting.
The pitched battles and bombardment had destroyed about 5,000 homes in Bajaur, which is home to about one million people, Ullah said.
Ullah appealed for international donors to come forward with money for reconstruction and the provision of basic services such as electricity and water to 304,598 people displaced from their homes in Bajaur.
The official said more than 180,000 had returned.

Date created : 2009-02-28