Pakistan redoubles frontier campaign

Pakistan has rushed extra security forces to its troubled North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan has rushed extra security forces to its troubled North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan where Taliban militants are trying to open up a new front against the government. Last week, the insurgents surrounded a police station in Hangu, a restive district 100km from the provincial capital, Peshawar, after police arrested several militants. Army troops and security forces moved into the village of Doaba to relieve the besieged police station late on Wednesday, but the Islamic radicals kidnapped at least 16 policemen and government officials and are holding them to ransom.

The flare-up in Hangu - a hilly area better known for tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslim communities - comes just two weeks after Pakistani forces launched a major operation to clear militants threatening to take control of Peshawar. "We have had some problems in Hangu, but we have also moved in our troops and hopefully in a very short while we will be cleaning up that area also," said Malick Navid, the police chief of North West Frontier Province.

Pakistan's semiautonomous, ethnic Pashtun tribal belt has largely fallen under the sway of militants seeking to emulate Afghanistan's 1996-2001 Taliban regime and impose their version of Islamic law. But the problems in Hangu and Peshawar have highlighted the growing "Talibanisation" of the so-called neighbouring settled areas, which are nominally under full government control. The United States and other western allies of Pakistan have criticised the new government for trying to reach peace deals with the local Taliban, saying it has allowed the militants to regroup.

Mr Navid blamed the problems in Hangu on its proximity to the tribal area and also as a result of deep-rooted sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, but he said the perpetrators were common "criminals". But a security official and residents said the siege on the police station began after officers tried to stop the Taliban from patrolling Doaba in lorries, warning residents via loudhailers not to indulge in "un-Islamic" activities.

Most of the Taliban are from the adjoining tribal zone of Orakzai, the security official said, but some had come from the notorious South Waziristan region further south and were allied to Baitullah Mehsud, who has been accused by authorities of being behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister. People in Doaba contacted by telephone said tensions were nearing tipping point.

"On one side there are the Taliban and on the other there are the security forces and if I say something about either it will make problems for me," said Zafar Khan Bangash, a 33-year-old trader in Doaba. "But there is fear in everyone's heart. If the Taliban and the army start fighting then what will our future be like? Already there is a food shortage and there is not even transport to leave the area," Mr Bangash said.

Another resident, Noor ul Islam, said the main bazaar in Doaba was heavy with the smell of rotting fruit, as shopkeepers had fled, fearing a fight. "The situation is not good," Mr Islam said. "I can see heavy army vehicles and even some artillery. The Taliban have taken up positions in the surrounding hills and one of my relatives lives there," he said. Meanwhile, time is running out for the police and local officials abducted by the militants last week.

A spokesman for the main Taliban movement operating in the country, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, said they were holding 27 people and would start executing hostages yesterday if members of the group held by the police were not released. "These are our people in Hangu," Maulvi Umar, a Taliban spokesman, said in a telephone interview from an unknown location. "We will start killing them one by one if our people are not freed. If they do not stop their operations we will start our own activities in Hangu," Umar said.

A jirga, or council of tribal elders, is trying to negotiate an end to the situation. But Shakirullah Khan, the Hangu police chief, said Pakistani authorities would not bow to the militants' demands. "How can we set free these people when we have arrested them and recovered weapons? They are real Taliban, we are not going to release them," Mr Khan said. The situation in Hangu underlines the need for the government to take decisive action to curb militant activities, said Talat Masood, a defence and political analyst and retired Pakistani army general.

"What is happening in Hangu is very alarming," Mr Masood said. "These militants are trying to lock up the army from all sides and create more and more problems for the security forces. They are becoming very, very shrewd," he said. "The writ of the state is undoubtedly being weakened." * The National

Published: July 12, 2008 04:00 AM


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