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Pakistan launches anti-Taliban crackdown near Peshawar
Sat Jun 28, 2008 10:34am EDT
By Ibrahim Shinwari
LANDIKOTAL, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani security forces launched an offensive against Taliban fighters near the northwestern city of Peshawar on Saturday, prompting a militant commander to suspend peace talks and threaten retaliation.
The crackdown in the Khyber tribal region followed a series of sorties by Taliban fighters into Peshawar to push people to observe their puritanical interpretation of Islamic law.
"There has not been any resistance from any group or miscreants," according to a government statement in Peshawar.
Major-General Alam Khattack, who is leading the offensive, said it was focused on Bara town, around 5 km (3 miles) west of Peshawar, and could be extended to other parts of Khyber.
"It was initially planned for four or five days but it may be extended further," he told a news conference in Peshawar.
A senior security official said the troops fired mortar rounds into militants' bases and destroyed eight of them, including the house of local militant commander Mangal Bagh. He said one militant was killed in an exchange of fire.
Roads in and out of Bara were closed, and a curfew ordered.
"People are in a state of fear. They are moving to safer places. All shops are shut," Murad Safi, a resident of Bara, told Reuters.
Bara is about 45 km (28 miles) southeast of Khyber's main town, Landikotal. Khyber, the main road link to Afghanistan and a key route for supplies to U.S. forces operating there, has long been known as a haven for smugglers and criminals.
PEACE TALKS SUSPENDED
Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, based in the most remote tribal region, South Waziristan, telephoned a Reuters correspondent to say he was suspending peace talks.
The new government led by the party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto began talks with Mehsud through tribal elders after it came to power in March.
"The talks will remain suspended until the government stops talking about operations and attacks against us," Mehsud said by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
He voiced concern that the action in Khyber was just the first of several operations planned against Taliban groups in various parts of the northwest, and threatened retaliation across Pakistan unless the offensives stopped.
"I am warning that the fire will not only burn in tribal areas and Frontier Province, it will engulf Punjab and Sindh also," Mehsud said.
Officials said Islamist militants had become active in Khyber over the past year and had ganged up with criminals. In recent weeks, Islamist vigilantes loyal to Bagh began roaming into some neighborhoods of Peshawar.
Riding on the back of pick-up trucks, fighters armed with Kalashnikovs have threatened owners of music and video shops in Peshawar, telling them to close down, and ordered barbers to stop shaving men's beards -- in line with the militants' interpretation of Islamic law.
Last Saturday, they also briefly kidnapped 25 Christians.
In Peshawar, paramilitary soldiers set up bunkers in Hayatabad, a neighborhood close to Khyber, and patrolled the streets in vehicles mounted with machine guns.
Residents of Peshawar had begun fearing the city could fall to the Taliban, even though the main army garrison for the entire northwest is located in the city of three million.
(Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Caroline Drees)
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