Pakistan's Zardari vows to fight 'until the end'

President Asif Ali Zardari said Saturday that Pakistan was battling for its "sovereignty" a day after scores of people were killed amid an escalating offensive against the Taliban, AFP reported.

Zardari said Pakistan would fight "until the end," as US defence officials in Washington confirmed that Islamabad was stepping up its operations against militants in the country's troubled northwest.

"We are fighting a war for our sovereignty," Zardari said in a television address. "We will continue this war until the end, and we will win it at any cost.

"The Taliban are the enemies of innocent people. They want to terrorise the people and to take control of the country's institutions."

Zardari's pledge came after suicide bombings targeting Friday prayers at two mosques killed at least six people, including a prominent Muslim cleric, and wounded more than 100.

The explosions confirmed fears that Taliban militants would avenge an offensive against them in the northwest, which was launched under US pressure after rebels advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad in defiance of a peace deal.

To help efforts against the insurgents, the government on Saturday proposed a defence budget of 343 billion rupees (4.24 billion dollars), an increase of 47 billion rupees from the previous year.

Islamabad will also increase the salaries of soldiers fighting in three northwestern districts and along the border with Afghanistan from July 1, with the rest of the troops to get a pay rise from January 2010.

Pakistan's tribal zones harbour Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels who fled the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, and Washington has said militants are using the lawless areas to regroup and plan attacks on the West.

On Saturday the Pakistani military said that it had killed 41 more militants in the northwestern districts of Malakand and Bannu.

Religious scholar Sarfraz Naeemi, who had spoken out against Taliban suicide bombings, was among two people killed in one of Friday's mosque attacks, in the eastern city of Lahore, police said.

Some 5,000 people Saturday attended his funeral prayers as strikes to protest his killing were held in Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan's two largest cities, officials said.

Protests to condemn the attack on Naeemi were also held by religious groups in several cities.

In Friday's other mosque bombing, four people died and at least 105 were wounded when an explosives-filled car ploughed into a mosque in the northwestern garrison town of Nowshera, police said.

Meanwhile, security officials said that jets pounded militant hideouts in the Mohmand tribal district bordering Afghanistan, killing at least seven rebels.

The tolls could not be verified independently as the areas are out of bounds to journalists due to the ongoing military operations.

A spokesman for militant leader Baitullah Mehsud's Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the two mosque attacks, as well as Tuesday's bombing of a hotel in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province.

"Anyone who will oppose us to please the Americans will face the same fate," Maulvi Omar told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.

In Washington, senior defence officials, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Islamabad planned to step up its offensive against Taliban forces in South Waziristan.

The region is a stronghold for the TTP, Pakistan's umbrella Taliban organisation, as well as for Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.

These groups are clearly interconnected, the official said, so "an offensive certainly can play an important role," noting that the strategy is to "have pressure on both sides of the border."

A 90,000-strong US and international coalition is fighting the Afghan Taliban and other insurgents on the Afghanistan side.

The Pakistani military said in a statement Saturday that it bombed two suspected hideouts used by TTP members in Makeen, South Waziristan, adding that the number of casualties could not be ascertained.

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