Mon, Sep 29, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Battle with remote militants pivotal to beating al-Qaeda

COMBAT FOCUS While Waziristan has captured most of the headlines about Pakistan’s tribal belt in recent years, the military says the Bajaur area faces the stiffest resistance

AFP , TANG KHATA, PAKISTAN

A massive battle with Islamist militants in an obscure Pakistani tribal region is proving to be pivotal to the country’s fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, officials said.

The six-week army operation in the remote region of Bajaur on the Afghan border is suspected to have sparked furious extremists into bombing the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad just over a week ago, they said.

While Waziristan has captured most of the headlines about Pakistan’s tribal belt in recent years, the military says Bajaur is where it faces the stiffest resistance since joining the US-led “war on terror” in 2001.

Troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter jets have struggled to push forward in the face of bunkers, tunnel networks and organized defenses constructed by extremists.

Several blown-up Pakistani tanks littered the roads during a recent trip for journalists arranged by the military. US-built Cobra gunships could be seen pounding insurgent positions.

“This is at the center,” said Major General Tariq Khan, head of the paramilitary Frontier Corps force, which is leading the fighting.

The operation should be completed in another month and a half, Khan told reporters, but said: “If we do not take any action it will become an independent agency spreading out terror in all directions.”

The country’s new civilian government launched the Bajaur offensive last month, largely in response to US pressure to stop militants attacking foreign troops in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military says that since then, 1,000 extremists have been killed, including al-Qaeda’s operational commander in Bajaur, Egyptian Abu Saeed Al-Masri. At least 27 troops have also died.

Pakistani security officials said it was the first time they had gone “full steam” since then-president Pervez Musharraf pushed troops into South Waziristan, the most southerly of the seven semi-autonomous tribal zones, in 2003 to tackle militants who fled the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Operations there and in North Waziristan ended in controversial peace deals with militants that angered Washington and allowed the rebels to regroup, increasingly in Bajaur.

There, followers of Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who escaped an air strike in Bajaur in 2006, joined forces with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan group of South Waziristan-based Baitullah Mehsud, officials say.

The former government blamed Mehsud for the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, wife of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, last December.

But the cost has been high in Bajaur.

“Pakistan’s army has never faced this level of resistance since it launched operations in the tribal areas [in 2003],” a senior military official said on condition of anonymity. “Every day fighter jets are used, every day Cobras are used, yet we cannot break their strongholds.”

Dozens of civilians have died in the fighting, while about one-third of Bajaur’s population of 1 million has been displaced.

In the abandoned village of Tang Khata, where troops drove out insurgents blocking the road to Bajaur’s main city of Khar, reporters saw gutted houses filled with debris and dried cornfields left unharvested.

Meanwhile analysts say the militants have also appeared to spread the violence back into “mainland Pakistan” with the suicide truck bomb attack on the Islamabad Marriott, which left at least 60 people dead.

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