PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Pakistan said Wednesday its troops have seized control of the main town in the northwest region of Buner after launching a new air and ground offensive against Taliban militants.
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.
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 United States had branded the Taliban’s advance “an existential threat” to Pakistan, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the government was “basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists”.
“We have taken control of Dagar town and an operation by the ground forces is under way” to take back the rest of Buner district, a senior military officer told AFP on Wednesday.
The latest Pakistani military operation launched Tuesday 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.
Washington earlier hailed the military operations as “exactly the appropriate response” to halt the Taliban’s advance in nuclear-armed Pakistan, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
“We are encouraging of these efforts,” Morrell said. “We hope they can sustain these operations.”
The threat of Taliban militants making further inroads into Pakistan could deepen the reservations the White House and its Western allies have about the peace deal in nearby Swat valley.
Islamabad in February agreed 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 radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah.
As well as encouraging military moves to stop the spread of the Taliban, the US also hopes to help stabilise Pakistan with non-military assistance, but on Tuesday hopes faded for an emergency package of US aid for the country.
Some US lawmakers are contesting whether funds for Pakistan will have the intended effect of bring stability.
Meanwhile there were continuing fears for civilians made homeless by the military operations in the region, with witnesses on Wednesday saying the Pakistani military were using helicopters to shell suspected hideouts.
Chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said fighter jets had also been used in the operation.
The offensive mounted in Lower Dir, in which around 70 militants and 10 security personnel died, has now been completed, Abbas said, but it was not clear if the military would pursue the Taliban into Swat Valley.
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.
“We are still abiding by the agreement. But if it is revoked by Sufi Mohammad, we will resume our jihad (holy war) against the government like in the past,” said Muslim Khan, a local Taliban spokesman.
“The operation is an act of extreme tyranny in which women and children are being targeted,” he said, calling it “drama being staged by the government to justify billions of dollars it received from America.”