Islamabad (AP) – Pakistan ramped up its campaign against Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud on Sunday, placing a bounty on the chieftain's head and launching air strikes on his stronghold in the country's northwest.
The government has expressed its determination in recent weeks to eliminate Mehsud, who is viewed with increasing alarm in Islamabad as a major threat to security in the country. His group has been blamed for a string of suicide bombings across the nation that have killed more than 100 people in the past month.
The intensifying conflict between Pakistani security forces and Mehsud has been centered in North and South Waziristan – part of the mountainous tribal belt in the northwest – where the army appears to be preparing for a fresh offensive aimed at eliminating Mehsud and his militant network.
But the Taliban has not been cowed by the government's attacks, claiming responsibility for a strike Sunday that killed 12 soldiers in North Waziristan and vowing to continue its assaults if the military does not halt its operations.
This week, Mehsud's group also demonstrated its ability to strike wherever it wishes, launching a suicide attack on Friday in Pakistani Kashmir – the first such attack in the divided territory targeting government troops.
On Sunday, the government upped the stakes in its battle with Mehsud, publishing an announcement in two national newspapers offering a 50 million rupee ($615,000) reward for information leading to his capture or death. Smaller amounts were offered for information on his top lieutenants.
"The condemnable and cruel acts of these callous people are not only earning a bad name for Pakistan, but also for Muslims worldwide," the announcement said. "Such people are certainly killers of humanity and deserve punishment."
The U.S. State Department has already authorized a reward of up to $5 million for Mehsud.
A Taliban commander with close ties to the militant leader told the Associated Press that the bounties will have no impact on its fight with the government.
"We are like a suicide squad. Mujahedeen [holy warriors] do not care about head money. Our mission goes on," Qari Hussain Ahmad said by telephone. "It is an old tradition of infidels to put head money on mujahedeen."
Hussain, who has a 10 million rupee ($123,000) reward on his head, pledged "more surprises and more attacks" against the government.
Pakistan's military continued its bombing campaign on suspected militant hideouts in South Waziristan, with fighter jets striking the village of Kani Guram overnight, leaving eight militants dead. Helicopter gunships also hit positions in Shah Alam and Raghhzai, killing three fighters, intelligence officials told the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.
It was not possible to independently confirm the casualty counts or the identities of those reported killed as journalists have little access to the remote, dangerous region.
Meanwhile, the Taliban stepped up its campaign on security forces in North Waziristan Sunday, killing 12 soldiers and wounding 10 more in an ambush on an army convoy, the military said in a statement. The army said 10 militants were killed in the ensuing firefight.
However, intelligence officials said 20 soldiers were killed in the attack and 35 were wounded. The three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Ahmadullah Ahmadi, claimed responsibility for the strike.
"We will keep on attacking the forces as long as the military continues operation in this region," he told the AP by phone.
Another government soldier died in South Waziristan when militants launched a pair of attacks on army outposts near Wana shortly after morning prayers, the army said in a statement.
The government's campaign against Mehsud and allied Taliban militants are seen as a test of its determination to confront an insurgency that has grown in recent years after earlier military operations failed to finish the job and peace deals with the Taliban collapsed.
Washington strongly supports the campaign, hoping it will eventually bring greater stability to Pakistan and help shut down al-Qaeda and Taliban networks that use the border region to plan and launch attacks on U.S. and other forces in Afghanistan.
Speaking to reporters Sunday in Lahore, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani ruled out any leniency for the extremists, arguing that now is the time for strong-willed action against the Taliban.
"The nation wants peace and the elimination of terrorism in the country, so this is not the time for talks but for a final decision [against terrorism] and the decisive action is on," Gilani said.
Also Sunday, Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, met with Pakistan's military chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for talks on security issues, Pakistan's military said in a statement.
(Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Mohammad Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali contributed to this report.)
Pakistan ramped up its campaign against Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud on Sunday, placing a bounty on the chieftain's head and launching air strikes on his stronghold in the country's northwest.~~