KHYBER AGENCY, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistani forces bombarded suspected militant hide-outs with mortar shells Saturday at the start of a major offensive against Taliban fighters threatening the main city in the country’s volatile northwest, officials said.
The offensive in the Khyber tribal region marked the first major military action Pakistan’s newly elected government has taken against the militants operating in areas along the border with Afghanistan.
The government had said it preferred to defuse tension with the groups through negotiations, but with threats to the city of Peshawar growing in recent weeks, the military decided to take action. Khyber also is a key route for U.S. military supplies into neighboring Afghanistan.
In response to the operation and other recent confrontations with security forces, Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader in Pakistan, said he was suspending talks between his allies and the government. He implied his forces could cause trouble in Pakistan’s main cities. “Peace cannot be brought with force and aggression. This will be very unfortunate for the Pakistani nation if fighting starts again,” he told The Associated Press by telephone.
A round-the-clock curfew was imposed in the Bara area bordering Peshawar, and heavy contingents of troops blocked the main road into Khyber, said Mujeeb Khan, a senior local official.
“All bazaars are shut, and residents have been asked not to come out of their homes,” he said. Local newspapers reported hospitals in Peshawar had been put on alert.
By Saturday afternoon, the paramilitary Frontier Corps began shelling suspected militant hide-outs in the mountains in Khyber, said local official Muhammad Siddiq Khan.
“The operation has been launched,” he said.
Fasih Ullah, a police officer in Khyber, said 700 Frontier Corps troops moved into Khyber late Friday for the offensive.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was in Peshawar on Saturday on a trip he insisted was unrelated to the operation.
Tauseef Haider, a top official with the Frontier Constabulary, a local law enforcement agency, said his forces had brought in reinforcements and heavy weapons to protect Peshawar and its more than 1 million residents from insurgents who might try a counterattack.
“Since the operation is going on in the tribal area, that is why we have to be extra cautious,” he said from the constabulary’s brick outpost in Shahkas, just outside Peshawar. “We have increased our strength we will not let any militant come this way.”
A likely target of the offensive was the Vice and Virtue Movement of militant leader Haji Namdar, which is suspected of attacks against coalition soldiers across the border in Afghanistan. Namdar has sought to impose his own strict brand of Islamic law in the region. He, however, is at odds with Mehsud.
The offensive also could target Menghal Bagh, whose fighters have waged attacks in Peshawar in what provincial officials say was an attempt to show their ability to wield influence outside the tribal regions and to intimidate the population. Bagh’s followers also have been accused of threatening convoys of supplies bound for coalition forces in Afghanistan.
In a sign of expected resistance, Namdar’s group said an offensive would only create further problems. “If the government thinks there is any issue to address, that should be resolved through talks, not by the use of force,” said Munsif Khan, spokesman for the group. “We are ready for talks with the government.” There has been growing concern about militant threats to Peshawar. Two weeks ago, a Taliban force from Khyber entered the city and kidnapped 16 Christians, who were later released.
Mahmood Shah, a former security chief in the tribal regions, said the Taliban “are on our doorstep” around Peshawar.
“The situation is like water flowing into a field and until you have some obstruction to stop it, you will drown. We are drowning,” he told AP.
Taliban have posted notices in some villages outside Peshawar telling residents to seek justice through their parallel courts rather than the local judiciary, he said. Misrri Khan, who works for a tribal paramilitary force that patrols Khyber, said the militants had kidnapped 16 of his fellow officers and threatened to behead them, and then take more captives, if they did not abandon checkpoints in the area. Khan said the force refused.
A leadership vacuum in Islamabad supplied more oxygen to a burgeoning Taliban movement, which now controls the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, Shah said.
“It is completely under their control. Everyone now is waiting for some action from the federal government, some coherent policy decision,” he said.
The new government elected in February eclipsed former army strongman and staunch U.S. ally President Pervez Musharraf. In a policy shift, the new administration supported peace talks with Taliban militants to try to curb an explosion in violence in the northwest.
But Pakistan’s Western allies were concerned that easing military pressure on the militants has given them space to operate, letting them strengthen their position in the border regions and giving them more freedom to attack U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
In a brazen show of force Friday, a group of militants in the Bajur region executed two accused spies for U.S. forces in front of 5,000 residents.
The body of a third accused spy was found riddled with bullets at the side of a road in Bajur, said Fazal Rabbi, a security official in the area. A note attached to his body said anyone else involved in spying would meet the same fate, he said.
Earlier this week, Pakistani government and military leaders gave their strongest commitment yet to combat militancy and signaled they reserved the right to use force.
Afrasiab Khattak, chief negotiator for the provincial government, told AP the province is considering a second operation in the Swat area, which has been hit by violence despite a peace deal between the provincial government and a radical pro-Taliban cleric.