Pakistani troops, backed by fighter jets and helicopters, have launched an offensive against Taliban fighters in the northwestern town of Buner.Troops moved into the area on Tuesday, marking an escalation of a conflict that began on the weekend in nearby Lower Dir, where thousands of people have fled the fighting.
About 33,000 people are reported to have fled the fighting in Lower Dir [AFP]
Major-General Athar Abbas, a Pakistani military spokesman, said he expected the operation would take up to a week to clear an estimated 500 fighters from the area.
The aim of the offensive is to eliminate and expel militants from Buner,” he said.
Major Nasir Khan, another military spokesmen, said that jets had bombed positions in mountains in the Babaji Kandao area of Buner.
Casualty figures were not immediately known, though Abbas said that 10 soldiers and up to 75 fighters had been killed.
Buner, Lower Dir and the nearby Swat valley are covered by the Malakand region peace deal, which allows the Taliban to enforce their strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, in the region in return for a truce.
The government offensive is straining the already shaky peace deal, which was widely criticised in the West as a surrender by Pakistan’s government to expanding Taliban control.
Sufi Muhammad, the local religious leader who has been holding peace talks with the central government, has suspended dialogue with Islamabad as a result of the army assault.
Before the military launched its Buner offensive, Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, gave warning to Taliban fighters to vacate the area.
“We are not going to spare them,” he said.
In Mingora, Swat’s main town, residents said that Taliban fighters had taken up positions in the main market and posters placed on the walls of buildings warned journalists over their coverage of the Taliban.
“They should mend their ways, otherwise they will be responsible for the consequences,” the posters said.
The government and rights groups say that about 33,000 people have left their homes in Lower Dir as a result of the military’s offensive there.
Al Jazeera sources suggest that number could be at least 50,000.
“Most of these people … are likely to go to relatives and friends, some of them of course will end up in the camps which the government has set up,” Kamal Hyder, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Pakistan, said.
“So the situation, as far as the ordinary people is concerned, is extremely serious.