Peshawar Operation Moves Ahead Swiftly

Pakistan Shells Islamic Militants Near Peshawar
By JANE PERLEZ and PIR ZUBAIR SHAH, New York, June 29, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — With Islamic militants tightening their grip around Peshawar, kidnapping residents and threatening the city itself, the new coalition government of Pakistan delivered its first military response to the Islamists on Saturday.

The action was limited, with security forces shelling territory outside Peshawar held by an extremist leader. Army forces were not used, and the intent apparently was merely to push the militants back from the city’s perimeter.

But the shelling was the first time the new civilian government, which has been committed to negotiating peace accords with Pakistani Taliban and other Islamic militants, resorted to military action.

In response, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, announced that he had suspended his participation in peace talks.

The Pakistani channel Samma TV reported that Mr. Mehsud had threatened to take the fight against the government to the heart of Pakistan, the provinces of Sindh and Punjab, if military action continued.

In Peshawar, senior military officials said that a regional security force had fired mortar shells against two bases of an Islamic militant known as Mangal Bagh, whose well-armed fighters have taken control over much of Khyber agency adjacent to the city.

“The ultimate objective is to establish the writ of the government where it is challenged,” Mohammed Alam Khattak, inspector general of the Frontier Corps, said at a news conference here.

General Khattak said the operation had been undertaken in response to “growing public demand” for a show of force against militants who have kidnapped city residents on an almost daily basis over the past several weeks and intimidated surrounding towns by shutting down the courts.

The show of force on Saturday, which included a blockade around the area of Bara in the Khyber agency where Mr. Mangal Bagh keeps most of his fighters, was limited to the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that is considered poorly equipped and generally demoralized.

The Pakistani Army maintains a large presence in Peshawar at an old British fort that houses the 11th Corps, but for the moment the army was being held in reserve, a spokesman for the military, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said.

The main goal of the operation, according to a senior military officer, was to destroy the bases of Mr. Mangal Bagh in Bara. General Khattak said he expected the operation to be limited and to be completed in five days.

Residents in Sipah, where Mr. Mangal Bagh lives, and in Shalober, the site of one of his bases, said by telephone that his forces had left both places by Friday. Mr. Mangal Bagh returned to his house in Sipah late Friday night and then left at 4 a.m. Saturday, said Rauf Khan Afridi, a resident of the town who was reached by telephone.

Mr. Afridi said that Mr. Mangal Bagh had returned to Bara on Saturday night and announced that he would convene a meeting of his leadership to discuss the situation.

Visitors to Sipah on Friday said there were no armed men in their usual haunts in the marketplace or around the village, a sign that they were expecting the attack from government forces and had fled.

The peace talks between the Pakistani government, which was formed after February elections, and Mr. Mehsud, the Taliban leader, have been criticized by the United States and NATO, on the ground that an accord would grant the Pakistani Taliban time to strengthen their ability to strike at coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan.

The White House was monitoring the situation, but had scant comment. “Extremists pose a threat to Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, and we will all continue to go after them when and where necessary” said Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for President Bush’s National Security Council.

One of the most important elements being negotiated by Pakistan’s new government is its call for an end to crossings by Mr. Mehsud’s forces into Afghanistan to fight NATO and American forces. That has not been finally agreed to.

But many elements have already been put into effect. The army has pulled back from positions in Mr. Mehsud’s territory, and both sides have exchanged prisoners. The impact of Mr. Mehsud’s announcement that he was withdrawing from the talks is not clear yet.

The forces of Mr. Mangal Bagh, which were the primary target of Saturday’s attack, are made up of several thousand fighters. Most of them are volunteers, but some have been conscripted.

His group is called Lashkar-i-Islam, the Army of Islam, and has imposed strict moral codes through much of Khyber agency. It has conducted public executions of men labeled as criminals, and in one case a man and a woman were stoned to death after being accused of an illicit relationship.

Mr. Mangal Bagh’s fighting force, built up over the last three years, has been reinforced by another militant leader, Hajji Namdar, who has a more potent force consisting of Uzbek and Arab fighters who specialize in attacking NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Mr. Namdar’s fighters have been responsible for many of the attacks on NATO supplies that travel past Peshawar and through the Khyber agency.

The boldest strike by Mr. Mangal Bagh in Peshawar came last weekend, when his fighters abducted 16 Christians from a house in a middle-class neighborhood. They were released after extensive negotiations with the police.

Some doubts were expressed on Saturday about the seriousness and intent of the attack by the Frontier Corps.

Afrasiab Khattak, a leader of the Awami National Party, which now governs the North-West Frontier Province, of which Peshawar is the capital, has said he believed that Mr. Mangal Bagh and his men were a creation of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

“In the past, these operations have been inconclusive,” Mr. Khattak said. “We will have to wait and see if this one is conclusive.”

Despite the shelling, weekend activity in Peshawar appeared normal. In the upscale neighborhood of Hayatabad, which borders Khyber agency, people strolled in the streets, and an ice cream vendor cycled down a main boulevard selling his wares.

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