Pakistan strikes pro-Taliban militants in tribal region

Pakistani forces on Saturday launched an operation against Islamic militants threatening the security of Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the main supply route for NATO forces in the area, officials said.

District Police Officer Suleman said 700 men from paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), 400 Frontier Reserve Police, and 200 Anti- Terrorist Squad personnel started operation in the tribal district of Khyber Agency and were making advances in the area.

"Our troops have taken positions in Akakhel, Gandao and Shaloban areas. They received little resistance in the Gandao area from where the militants fled after a brief exchange of fire with government forces. No one was injured," he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

In Shaloban areas, the law enforcers destroyed a base camp of Mangal Bagh, a firebrand cleric who has tried to enforce Taliban-type rule in the small town on the border with Afghanistan as well as in Peshawar.

The areas lie 30 kilometres south-west of Bara, the headquarters of hundreds of heavily armed fighters loyal to Bagh.

Peshawar, a front-line city in the US-led war against terror has been suffering from a poor law-and-order situation since pro-Taliban militants took control of the adjacent Khyber Agency.

Last week 16 members of the Christian community were abducted by Bagh's men, who after taking control of Bara and Jamrud areas of Khyber Agency have now started patrolling Matani, Pishta Khara, Hayatabad and Matra areas of Peshawar.

In the surrounding areas of Peshawar the rebels were bombing music shops, movie theatres and internet cafes. Cable operators were receiving threats to abandon their trade and barbers are told not to shave beards and women are barred from receiving an education.

Emergency has been imposed in all major hospitals of Peshawar and all the law enforcement agencies were put on high alert.

Due to the prevailing uncertainty some families from Hayatabad Township had started to migrate to safer places in the city.

Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas confirmed to dpa that the security operation was going on in Khyber Agency and the military would assist police and the paramilitary forces in the operation only if militant resistance was very strong.

"The situation in and around Peshawar was brewing for quite sometime and there were definitely some incursions into the city also, but I believe ... the situation has been exaggerated. It is not that alarming," he said.

The provincial government has ordered the Frontier Corps to start operation and the FC was in action at the moment, he added.

Supporters of Bagh also moved last week to strengthen their control along the Pakistan-Afghanistan highway, which is a used as a supply route by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Hundreds of Bagh men also attacked the rival Ansarul Islam group in Tirah valley of Khyber Agency.

Four more people died on Saturday in the intense week-long clashes between the two groups, taking the death toll to around 50, Geo news channel reported. The similar number of people were injured.

The local administration in the semi-autonomous tribal area however could confirm only 25 deaths over the last six days.

Separately, in the north-east of Peshawar, five people were killed in renewed violence. Unknown gunmen shot dead three people on late Friday in Kabal area of the district, while police in the Matta area found the body of a person whose throat was slit.

According to local authorities a civilian violating curfew was killed by security forces.

In the neighbouring tribal district of Bajaur Agency, a beheaded body of an Afghan national was found. A letter attached to the body accused the man of spying for the Americans.

Militancy has risen in north-west Pakistan since the new government opened peace talks with the militants under revision of what it called "hard-handed" policies of President Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally in its international fight against terrorism.

The move raised concerns in Washington and other NATO capitals that the peace accords would only provide rebels the opportunity to regroup and strike international forces across the border in Afghanistan and Pakistani troops inside the country.

Meanwhile, Baitullah Mehsud, a leader of militant umbrella organization Tehrik-i-Talban Pakistan (Taliban Movement in Pakistan), suspended peace talks with the government following the security operation.

"We will not talk to the government until the government stops operation against Taliban in Khyber Agency," he told reporters in Peshawar by telephone.

Analysts believe the operation would see a repeat of the suicide bombings campaign that killed more than 4,000 people, including 1,000 security personnel, in last 15 months, dpa reported.

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