PESHAWAR, Pakistan – The Pakistani army launched an air attack and prepared to deploy troops against Taliban bases Tuesday in an area near Islamabad, the nation’s capital.
The offensive appeared to signal a broadening of the state’s recent moves against militants, many of whom have become increasingly brash after reaching a controversial peace deal this year largely on their terms.
Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, told reporters in Rawalpindi that army and Frontier Corps paramilitary units launched the operation in Buner district, building on a several-day offensive in the region. Abbas said an estimated 450 to 500 Taliban are believed active in Buner, many believed to be engaged in “criminal activities.”
“The government asked them to leave the district several times, but they paid no heed,” Abbas said. “The operation in Buner aims to eliminate militants who pretended to leave the area.”
Eyewitness reports suggested some Taliban militants fired back at army helicopter gunships with heavy machine guns. Buner officials said a curfew was imposed indefinitely. Explosions were heard as helicopters bombed militant strongholds, while local Taliban reportedly blew up the main bridge in Buner’s Ambala area in retaliation.
In early April, well-armed Taliban entered Buner from their stronghold in neighboring Swat Valley, setting up check points, warning locals to follow strict Islamic behavioral rules and patrolling the area with well-armed men. They also reportedly took over Buner’s Pir Baba police station, holding 43 paramilitary and 17 policemen hostage, and have kidnapped boys for recruiting into Taliban ranks. Buner is about 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
This bid to boost their influence – coming fast on the heels of a peace deal in Swat that granted them authority to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, on the local population – has rung alarm bells across Pakistan and around the world amid fears that their expansion could further undercut the state authority in this nuclear-equipped nation.
The army’s announcement Tuesday follows several days of military activity in Dir, another district nearby that has witnessed an influx of Swat Taliban in recent weeks.
Abbas said the army successfully cleared Dir of militants in an operation that saw as many as 75 militants and 10 security forces killed. By Tuesday, however, up to 30,000 residents wary of getting caught in the crossfire had reportedly fled Dir for the regional capital of Peshawar and nearby towns.
Swat, Buner and Dir are part of the Malakand division of the North-West Frontier Province abutting Afghanistan. In mid-April, President Asif Ali Zardari sanctioned the Shariah peace deal throughout the region with radical cleric Sufi Mohammad. Supporters argued the move would end militant violence as militants were expected to disarm. Critics tarred the deal as a sell-out that would embolden the extremists.
Analysts said there’s ongoing suspicion that the United States put significant pressure on Zardari to mount the army and paramilitary offensive.