ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Pakistan announced on Saturday a suspension of military operations against Islamist militants for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, but a senior official said security forces would respond if attacked.
Violence has intensified in Pakistan in recent weeks with the military battling militants in three different parts of the northwest. The militants have responded with bomb attacks on the security forces.
Deteriorating security has coincided with a faltering economy and political upheaval, with the resignation of the unpopular Pervez Musharraf as president last week followed within days by a split in the ruling coalition.
Worry about security and politics has unnerved investors who have sent Pakistani financial markets skidding lower. The country’s main share index has fallen about 36 percent this year.
The government’s top Interior Ministry official, Rehman Malik, said security forces would suspend operations from Sunday night for the month of Ramadan, which ends at the beginning of October, but would retaliate if attacked. “If militants take any action the security forces will respond with full force,” Malik told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore.
Pakistani Taliban spokesmen were not immediately available for comment.
The United States and other allies have been concerned the government led by assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s party might be less committed to the unpopular war against militancy after the resignation of firm ally Musharraf.
Washington says al Qaeda and Taliban militants are based in sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun tribal areas on the Afghan border, where they orchestrate attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plot violence in the West.
But the offensives by the military have eased the worry.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week after talks with Pakistan’s army chief he was encouraged by the Pakistani efforts.
Some of the most intense fighting in recent weeks has been in the Swat Valley, about 150 km (100 miles) northwest of the capital, Islamabad, where the military said nearly 40 militants were killed in the latest clashes.
The military used jet fighters and helicopter gunships to attack militant positions in the Matta area on Friday, with the assault continuing into Saturday. Nearly 40 had been killed in the past 24 hours, a military spokesman said.
The mountain valley was one of Pakistan’s main tourist destinations until last year, when Pakistani Taliban infiltrated from sanctuaries in lawless areas on the Afghan border to support a radical cleric campaigning for hardline rule.
The military is also battling militants in the Bajaur area on the Afghan border, across mountains to the west of Swat, and in the South Waziristan region.
In a separate incident on Saturday, a missile hit a house in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, killing five people, said a resident who saw the bodies taken out of the rubble.
The house was owned by a man known to have militant links, residents said. A security official said two of the dead were foreigners.
It was not immediately clear who fired the missile but U.S.-operated pilotless drones have attacked in Pakistani border regions several times this year, killing dozens of militants.
The fighting in the northwest has displaced about 250,000 people, most of whom are staying with friends and relatives. But nearly 100,000 are staying in camps, some set up in schools or in open areas with little or no sanitation, raising fear of disease and concern the government might soon face a humanitarian crisis on top of its many other problems.