Pakistan pursues nation's top Taliban commander

Missile strike kills 5 alleged militants

A soldier stood near a vehicle carrying a family waiting for security clearance at a checkpoint in the Swat region on Saturday. A soldier stood near a vehicle carrying a family waiting for security clearance at a checkpoint in the Swat region on Saturday. (Mian Khursheed/ Reuters)
By Nahal Toosi and Asif Shahzad
Associated Press / June 15, 2009
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan ordered its army to go after the country's top Taliban commander, a feared militant whose remote stronghold could prove a difficult test for troops but whose demise would be a major blow to the insurgencies here and in Afghanistan.

The announcement yesterday of the operation in South Waziristan, rumored for weeks, came hours after a suspected US missile strike killed five alleged militants there. The move is likely to please Washington, which considers the tribal region a particularly troublesome hide-out for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters implicated in attacks on US troops in Afghanistan.

Owais Ghani, the governor of North West Frontier Province, told reporters in Islamabad late yesterday that the government felt it had no choice but to resort to force against Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud and his network.

Past army action in the region had usually faltered or ended in truces, strengthening the militants. "Baitullah Mehsud is the root cause of all evils," Ghani said, noting a slew of suicide bombings that have shaken Pakistan in recent days. "The government has decided that to secure the innocent citizens from terrorists, a meaningful, durable, and complete action is to be taken."

Ghani suggested the operation has already begun, though the military has insisted its recent attacks on militants in South Waziristan were retaliatory, not the launch of a new offensive. Two intelligence officials said the army and Taliban were fighting in the Spinkai Raghzai area of South Waziristan as the governor made the announcement.

Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told the Associated Press late yesterday: "The government has made the announcement. We will give a comment after evaluating the orders."

South Waziristan, part of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt, is a rumored hide-out of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. As the military has pursued a separate offensive against Taliban fighters in the northwest's Swat Valley, observers have noted that the Taliban will not be defeated in Pakistan unless they lose their tribal sanctuaries.

The United States has frequently targeted South Waziristan with missile strikes. The suspected strike yesterday hit three vehicles and killed five suspected militants. Two Pakistani intelligence officials confirmed the attack on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Neighboring North Waziristan, another militant stronghold and target for US missiles, may also fall under the new Pakistani offensive at some point.

Mehsud is believed to pose a serious internal threat to the Pakistani government, and has been blamed for the killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, though he has denied that accusation. The Taliban chief also has been linked to bombings on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In many ways, a full-scale battle in South Waziristan will be a harder fight than in Swat, where the army claims to have killed hundreds of militants over the past six weeks.

One reason is that the tribal region's porous border with Afghanistan could make it easier for militants to escape to the other side. Because of the tribal belt's semiautonomous nature, the government has long had limited influence, allowing militants to become deeply entrenched.

A new offensive could also mean more displaced civilians in Pakistan, already struggling to deal with more than 2 million who fled their homes in Swat and surrounding districts.

Pakistan's decision comes as public opinion has shifted against the Taliban, who have been blamed or have claimed responsibility for a series of bloody attacks in recent weeks, including one that killed a prominent anti-Taliban cleric and another that devastated a luxury hotel in Peshawar.

Yesterday, a bomb rocked a market in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan, while officials said clashes between the Taliban and security forces killed at least 20 militants in a tribal area supposedly cleared of insurgents months ago.

Government official Inayat Ullah said 11 to 13 pounds of explosives were planted in a fruit vendor's hand-pulled cart in the market. Police official Mohammad Iqbal put the death toll at nine, with 20 wounded.

At a hospital where some of the wounded were taken, cries punctured the air.

"It was crowded there when something big exploded," said 30-year-old Ilyas Ahmad, whose legs were wounded. "It was a big noise. Everybody was crying. Bodies were lying there. People were lying around blood."

A Taliban commander, Qari Hussain Ahmad, attributed the blast to Pakistani intelligence agencies, saying the government was carrying out such acts to legitimize an operation in Waziristan.

"They want to malign us. They want to use killings of innocent citizens against us," Hussain told the Associated Press by phone from an undisclosed location.