Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pakistan army struggles in Buner

The Pakistani government has not fully asserted control in the district of Buner, military officials have told a visiting team of BBC journalists.

The army is conducting a big offensive against Taliban militants in Buner.

The BBC's Haroon Rashid travelled to Buner in the north-west and says that fighting is continuing in two villages and the area is effectively a war zone.

Our correspondent says that many areas are deserted and remaining residents are shaken by curfews and power cuts.

Three weeks into the assault, our correspondent says that it is clear the army is not in full control, even if there is little overt sign of any militant presence.

While some of Buner's residents are starting to return in trickles - mostly farmers fearing that their crops will die - the main town of Daggar is mainly deserted, with vehicles and a fuel station destroyed.

Hospitals have remained open but power is erratic following recent fighting with the Taliban.

Our correspondent says that the army is not manning checkpoints in Buner, preferring instead to position themselves in the hills and fire warning shots at people who try to pass through during the hours of the curfew.

Nearly 1.5 million people have been displaced by this month's fighting in the north-western region, the United Nations refugee agency says. At least half a million more were displaced by fighting last year.

The UN has called for urgent and massive international help.

The military says more than 1,000 militants have been killed in the fresh offensive launched two weeks ago.

In the latest fighting some 80 suspected militants were killed in the Sultanwas area, the military said, adding that the area was now cleared of Taliban.

Most of those displaced have fled the war zones in Swat, Dir and Buner districts of Malakand region since last month.

The exodus was partly encouraged by the military to keep civilian deaths to a minimum in a hand-to-hand fight which it expects in some parts of Swat valley.

On Monday, an army spokesman said most areas in Dir and Buner had been secured while infantry troops were being launched for a final ground offensive in Swat where the army hopes to trap militants and lure them into a street fight.

Bruce Riedel, who chaired a strategic review of America's Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy for President Obama, told the BBC's World Today programme that defeat in the Swat valley for the Pakistan army could have serious repercussions for the country's future stability.

"There is the immediate threat that the Taliban poses in taking over the Swat valley, but there is a much more insidious threat of the Taliban and Islamic militancy seeping into the very core of the Pakistani state."

He said what is needed is a much more sophisticated approach to the Taliban, using influence and leverage, and continuing support to the Pakistani government.

If that fails, he now believes there is the real possibility that the Taliban could seize control of Pakistan.

"If you had asked me a year ago I would have said 'highly unlikely'," he said.

"It is not imminent, it's not inevitable, it may not be the most likely outcome in Pakistan - but it has become one that is really possible."