Pakistan troops rush to Taliban-infiltrated area
Pakistan troops rush to Taliban-infiltrated area
Police officer killed as Clinton warns Islamabad to focus on Islamist threat
The Associated Press
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Pakistani troops rushing to protect government buildings and bridges in a Taliban-infiltrated district just 60 miles from the capital were met with gunfire Thursday that killed one police officer, authorities said.
It was not immediately clear if the gunmen were Taliban militants, but the clash in Buner district is likely to heighten concern about the viability of a government-backed peace deal with the Taliban in northwest Pakistan.
The deal imposes Islamic law in a large segment of the country's northwest in exchange for peace with Taliban militants in the neighboring Swat Valley.
In recent days, the valley's militants have entered Buner in large numbers — establishing checkpoints, patrolling roads and spreading fear. Their movement has bolstered critics' claims that the deal would merely embolden the militants to spread their reign to other parts of the province bordering Afghanistan.
Tough criticism from U.S.
The United States has become one of the deal's foremost critics.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a House appropriations subcommittee that the Obama administration is working to convince Pakistan that its traditional focus on India as a threat has to shift to the Islamic extremists.
"Changing paradigms and mindsets is not easy, but I do believe there is an increasing awareness of not just the Pakistani government but the Pakistani people that this insurgency coming closer and closer to major cities does pose such a threat," the secretary of state said.
On Wednesday, Clinton told another House committee that in her view the Pakistani government is "basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists."
She said Thursday that the administration's special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, has had "painful, specific" conversations with a wide range of Pakistanis about the need to act more effectively against the insurgents.
"There is a significant opportunity here for us working in collaboration with the Pakistani government to help them get the support they need to make that mindset change and act more vigorously against this threat," she said, adding: "There are no promises. They have to do it."
Government troops bolster security
Six Frontier Constabulary platoons arrived Wednesday in Buner, a district with more than a half-million residents, said Syed Mohammed Javed, a government official who oversees the area covered by the peace deal. He would not say if the deployment was in direct response to the Taliban presence.
Javed did not specify the number of troops involved, but a platoon typically has 30 to 50 members.
On Thursday, gunmen opened fire on a security convoy that included some of the Frontier Constabulary. The gunfire killed an escorting police officer and wounded another in the Totalai area, said Hukam Khan, an area police official.
He refused to speculate on the identities of the gunmen.
Situation not as dire as protrayed?
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the Pakistan Army's chief spokesman, insisted the situation in Buner was not as dire as some have portrayed — saying militants were in control of less than 25 percent of the district, mostly its north.
"We are fully aware of the situation," Abbas said. "The other side has been informed to move these people out of this area."
However, a meeting between tribal elders and the Taliban on Thursday in Daggar, Buner's main town, ended without any indication that the Taliban would withdraw.
In an indication of the fear spread by their advance, Daggar's bazaar as well as the road into the district were almost deserted, according to an AP Television News reporter who visited the area and witnessed part of the meeting.
Police and government officials in Buner appear to have either fled or are keeping a low profile, and there was no sign of the Frontier Constabulary forces in the town.
Two Taliban representatives declined to comment after the meeting, driving away in a pickup truck full of gun-toting associates. However, a Taliban leader who goes by the name Commander Khalil said the militants had agreed to stop patrolling in Buner, though they would still keep armed guards in their vehicles.
"We are here peacefully preaching for Sharia. We don't want to fight," Khalil told an AP reporter by phone.
Another Taliban leader, Maulana Muhammad Bashir, said the militants had agreed not to target those who had opposed them in the past in Buner — a key demand of local leaders, some of whom had raised tribal militias to fight the Taliban.
Javed Khan, a top administrator in Buner, said the Taliban agreed to not exhibit weapons or interfere with government offices. The militants also promised to leave aid groups alone, and return seized government vehicles, he said.
Nasir Laik, an elder at the Daggar meeting, said the militants could stay so long as they only preached.
According to officials, the Taliban have established a base in the village of Sultanwas and set up positions in the nearby hills. Residents say they have been broadcasting sermons by radio about Islam and warning barbers to stop shaving men's beards.
Pact intended to ease clashesPresident Asif Ali Zardari signed off on the peace pact last week in hopes of calming Swat, where some two years of clashes between the Taliban and security forces have killed hundreds and displaced up to a third of the one-time tourist haven's 1.5 million residents.
The cease-fire agreement with militants covers Swat and other districts in the Malakand Division, an area of about 10,000 square miles near the Afghan border and the tribal areas where al-Qaida and the Taliban have strongholds.
Supporters say the deal takes away the militants' main rallying call for Islamic law and will let the government gradually reassert control — a theory yet to be seriously tested.
Also Thursday, dozens of militants armed with guns and gasoline bombs attacked a truck terminal elsewhere in northwest Pakistan, burning five tanker trucks carrying fuel to NATO troops in Afghanistan, police said.
Gunmen attacked the truck depot near the city of Peshawar before dawn on Thursday, hurling gasoline bombs that set fire to the five tankers, said Abdul Khan, a local police official.
Security guards fled, and the assailants escaped before police arrived, Khan said.
NATO and the U.S. military insist that their losses on the transport route remain minimal and have had no impact on their expanding operations in Afghanistan. However, they have been seeking alternative routes through Central Asia.
The chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, was in Pakistan on Thursday for talks with Pakistani officials, the U.S. Embassy said.