Dawn, September 2, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Sept 1: The army said on Monday it had routed Taliban militants in Bajaur, killing 560 Pakistani and foreign fighters and thwarting a push to make Bajaur into a militant fortress.
Maj Gen Athar Abbas, the chief of ISPR, told a western news agency about 20 members of the security forces had died and 30 were missing.
“In our view, the back has been broken,” he said. “Main leaders are on the run and the people of the area are now openly defying whatever the militants had achieved there.”
Last week, the government had ordered a halt to the operation to allow some of the 300,000 families which fled air strikes and combat in the Bajaur region to return home for Ramazan.
However, officials reported that troops fired on militants seen moving toward a security post late on Monday, and that stray mortar shells killed at least two civilians.
MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Maj Gen Abbas said many foreigners were reportedly in Bajaur before the operation, but that many had probably fled to Afghanistan or other parts of the NWFP and that the operation had turned up no trace of Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.
However, the prime minister’s adviser on interior, Rehman Malik, told a press conference that security forces had recently missed a chance to catch Al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al Zawahiri.
Rehman Malik did not say when security forces had missed the chance to catch Zawahiri. He would only reveal authorities had received a report that Mr Zawahiri’s wife had recently been seen in Mohmand Agency.
Soldiers stormed the location, but did not find the couple, he said, without indicating when the raid took place. He said Zawahiri had been travelling back and forth between Mohmand and the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Paktika of late.
He parried a question as to where Osama might be.
The adviser said Pakistani Taliban were working hand in glove with Al Qaeda, providing them with shelter and acting as their mouthpiece.
“They have not only connections, I would say Tehrik-i-Taliban is an extension of Al Qaeda.”
Mr Malik accused the Afghan government of letting many of the estimated 3,000 militants who had gathered in Bajaur flee over the frontier.
According to him, the three weeks of fighting in Bajaur had killed an uncertain number of civilians and badly damaged several villages. Of about 500,000 people who fled, many of them to government relief camps, about 30,000 had returned by Monday.
Some, just scraping by, said they could not afford to make the journey home for Ramazan and would instead remain in sweltering, mosquito-infested tents.
Others were gathering up their few belongings and piling into buses and pickup trucks.
“God knows what will happen once we get there,” said Bakhsh Ali Khan, who was heading with his wife and five children to their home in Pashat, an area of Bajaur. “But we’re living in shambles here. Our family has been separated, we do not have enough food, proper clothing or beds.” Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar told a reporter on Monday by telephone that he welcomed the lull in fighting.
However, he said militants would not lay down their arms.
Defence analyst Talat Masood said the suspension of military operations in Bajaur risked squandering any gains made by security forces so far.
“Definitely it will give a fair chance to the militants to regroup, consolidate their strength and stage a comeback,” he said. “This has happened in the past.”
Sergeant Christopher Peavy, a spokesman for US-led forces in Afghanistan, said that while it was too soon to tell if infiltration had decreased, “we are encouraged by the operations that Pakistan’s military is conducting”.
TTP is an extension of Al Qaeda: Rehman - Daily Times
Pakistan claims victory in militant stronghold - AFP