Pakistan Hits Back Against Growing Militant Threat

Shaheen Buneri | Correspondent | Monday, June 30, 2008

Pakistan Hits Back Against Growing Militant Threat

Peshawar, Pakistan ( - The top Taliban leader in Pakistan has called off all peace talks with the government, to protest a week-long military campaign mounted against Islamists operating in the lawless tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

The suspension of the talks is the latest challenge to the Pakistan government, whose negotiations with the Taliban have drawn fire from the U.S., NATO and the government of Afghanistan. Critics say that appeasing militants in Pakistan fuels terrorism across the border.

Pakistan Taliban movement chief Baitullah Mehsud, based in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), told reporters in Peshawar by telephone he was freezing talks because the government had failed to uphold its commitments.

Mehsud was angered by a security force offensive launched against Lashkar-e-Islam (Army of Islam), a hard-line group based in the FATA's Khyber division. It was the first sizeable offensive launched since the new civilian government took office in Islamabad following elections last February.

Under its commander, Mengal Bagh, the group has been flexing his muscles in the area, recruiting youths to fight "vice" and promote "virtue." Operations have extended beyond the tribal belt into neighboring North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where last week it abducted 16 Christians from Peshawar, the provincial capital.

The 16 were later released after drawn-out tribal negotiations.

Alam Khattak, commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, told reporters in Peshawar that a Lashkar-e-Islam headquarters in Khyber had been destroyed and operations would continue "until the area is cleared of criminals."

The group is not part of the Taliban umbrella group headed by Mehsud, but operates in a similar fashion. It began operating in the area in 2001under an extremist cleric who started recruiting tribal youths to fight against rival groups. The government later forced the cleric to leave the area, and Mengal Bagh, a bus driver, became its leader.

Lashkar-e-Islam is not the only one whose actions have been causing concern despite the peace talks.

Taliban militants have reportedly established shari'a courts in several areas of the FATA and are administering decisions in line with their interpretations of Islam. On Friday, Taliban fighters publicly executed two Afghan nationals they accused of providing a tip-off that led to a recent U.S. missile strike in the area.

In the NWFP's Swat valley, a Taliban group that signed a peace deal with the provincial government last May has also been continuing its violent activities, including the destruction of girls' schools and a ski resort.

The faction's spokesman, Muslim Khan, said the schools were attacked because the military was using them as bunkers. He said the group would not talk to the government until the military was withdrawn from the area.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani last week held a meeting in Islamabad to discuss the violence and gave military chiefs the go-ahead to take military action against militants when necessary.

Political analysts say the government's conciliatory policies have emboldened the Taliban, which is spreading its influence beyond FATA.

"Earlier they were restricted to FATA and we thought that they would stay there," said Brig. (ret.) Mehmod Shah, a former head of security in the tribal areas. "Now they are knocking at our doors."

NATO spokesman Mark Laity told a news conference in Kabul on Sunday that Afghanistan would not be secured as long as insurgents were allowed to "operate safely" on the Pakistan side of the border.

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