Pakistan Troops Battling Taliban Take Key Town

By Munir Ahmad | April 29, 2009 | 4:51 AM EDT
Islamabad (AP) - Helicopter-borne commandos took back a key town from the Taliban on Wednesday as warplanes pounded militants to halt their advance toward the Pakistani capital, the army said.
Pakistan is acting under intense U.S. pressure to take a tougher line against Islamist militants expanding from strongholds along the Afghan border, where al-Qaida leaders including Osama bin Laden may also be hiding.
In recent days, government forces have begun trying to drive the Taliban back into the Swat Valley, from where they had pushed out under cover of a creaking peace pact struck in February.
Helicopters dropped troops near Daggar, the main town in the Buner district, and in neighboring areas early on Wednesday morning, an army statement said.
The commandos secured the town and were linking up with police and paramilitary troops already in the area, the statement said.
It didn't say how many troops were involved or whether they clashed with militants who overran the district earlier this month.
However, a Pakistani military official said army jets and helicopters had attacked militant positions in the area as part of the move to take Daggar.
The official asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to release the details. He had no word on any casualties from Wednesday's operation.
The Taliban advance into Buner brought them to within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the capital, Islamabad. The army also says troops have killed scores of militants in recent fighting in Lower Dir, another area neighboring Swat.
Both lie within Malakand, the region covered by the government's much-criticized peace deal. Officials agreed to impose Islamic law in return for peace in a region devastated by two years of bloody fighting.
Pakistani officials said the Islamic law concession robbed the militants of any justification for retaining their arms and have insisted they were ready to use force against militants who defy the government.
But officials in Washington, which is propping up Pakistan's army and government with billions of dollars, have slammed the pact as a surrender and welcomed the resumption of military action.
The army offensives are "exactly the appropriate response" to the Taliban advance, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Tuesday.
"We are hopeful and encouraging of the Pakistani military that they are able to sustain these operations against the militants and to stem this encroachment on the more populated areas of Pakistan."
The Obama administration has an opportunityt to reiterate that demand when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari joins his Afghan counterpart in Washington for talks next week.
Pakistan has waged several offensives in the border region since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States.
The operations have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the flight of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, but have been punctuated by ill-fated peace agreements from which the militants emerged stronger than before.
Amnesty International estimated on Wednesday that at least 33,000 civilians have fled their homes to avoid the recent clashes in Lower Dir. Witnesses told of bodies left lying in the fields because residents were too scared to move them, the rights groups said. At least five civilians died, it said.
"Pakistan is now facing a serious displacement crisis," said Sam Zarifi Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director. "While the politicians in Islamabad and Washington talk about geopolitics, people in these quiet villages have their lives shattered."
Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Tuesday that troops faced an estimated 450-500 militants in Buner and forecast that the operation to drive them out would take about a week.
He dismissed fears that the capital Islamabad, separated from Buner by the Indus River and the Margalla Hills, was under any threat of a militant takeover.
"I see this as a completely false alarm," he said. "I think we are 170 million people with a huge military. God willing, they (the militants) will be taken care off."
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