Pakistan begins new offensive against militants in north-west

Pakistani paramilitary troops backed by helicopter gunships on Sunday launched a new assault against Taliban militants in a restive region that was put under Islamic rule two weeks ago after a controversial truce, the military said.

The operation started in Lower Dir district of the Malakand division in the North West Frontier Province after a series of statements and violent actions by the militants challenging the government's writ.

"On the request of the provincial government and people of Dir, Frontier Corps (paramilitary forces) started (an) operation early this morning against suspected militants hideouts in Islampura and Lal Qila in Lower Dir," the military said in a statement.

According to the statement, "scores of militants" were killed in intense fight around the Kala Daag village. An important local militant commander was among the dead.

Private television channels identified the commander as Maulana Shahid.

One soldier was also killed and four others were wounded in heavy exchange of fire, which continued until late afternoon.

The fresh offensive came as Western governments, including that of the United States, raised serious concerns about the peace pact in the north-western Swat region and accused the nuclear-armed country of abdicating to the Taliban.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari approved the imposition of Islamic sharia law in the Malakand division and Swat on April 13, nearly two months after hardline cleric Sufi Mohammad brokered a peace deal between the regional government and the rebel.

Mohammad had given an assurance that the militants would end violence and lay down their arms in return for the establishment of Islamic courts in the region.

Although the government began setting up sharia courts, the emboldened militants refused to disarm and instead expanded their control over Swat's neighbouring districts of Buner and Shangla.

On Sunday, Pakistani Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik also hinted at stern action against the insurgents, who he blamed for a weekend bombing in Lower Dir.

Twelve children were killed and three more were wounded in Luqman Banda village Saturday when they started playing with a homemade explosive device they mistook for a toy.

Pakistan's Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani Friday expressed the military's resolve to fight and eliminate the militants endangering the lives of peaceful citizens and challenging the writ of the state.

"The operational pause, meant to give the reconciliatory forces a chance, must not be taken for a concession to the militants," General Kayani said in apparent reference to the lull in Swat fighting after the February 16 peace agreement, reported dpa.

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