- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Militants battling security forces in a tribal region bordering Afghanistan have forced families to give up sons to fight alongside Islamist extremists, a Pakistani military official said.

New violence in the Bajur tribal region Saturday reportedly killed 16 insurgents, while police said they caught 35 militant suspects on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Overall, more than 1,000 reported militants have died since Pakistan launched a military offensive in Bajur in early August, officials said. The effort has won praise from U.S. officials, who say al Qaeda and Taliban fighters involved in attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan use Bajur and neighboring tribal regions as a safe haven.

The offensive, which could last up to two more months, proceeds as Pakistan struggles with economic problems, power shortages and violence throughout the country, including a massive attack that devastated the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad a week ago.

Insurgents had a stranglehold on Bajur before the offensive, officials said. The militants converted schools into Islamic courts, set up a traffic control system, and imposed taxes on the timber and marble industries, the region’s two main industries.

On Friday, a Pakistani military commander accused insurgents of forced conscription.

“All families were asked to give their one male child to this [militant] movement, and this was done forcibly, and if somebody doesn’t do it, his house would be destroyed,” said Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

It is nearly impossible to independently confirm the details provided by Gen. Khan and others in the military. Journalists’ access to Bajur is restricted, and the area is remote and dangerous.

The government traditionally has had limited authority in the area, allowing tribes to wield tremendous influence, although that has suffered as militants have grown in power.

In a briefing to reporters visiting the region Friday on a special army-organized trip, Gen. Khan showed photos of militant tunnel systems and trenches and said Bajur had become a “center of gravity” for all sorts of insurgents from throughout the region.

Gen. Khan expressed “respect” for the militant fighters, saying they had good communications and command and control systems as well as “top of the line” tactical understanding of the terrain.

“They are not people who are just picked up from the streets and haven’t gone through any kind of formal training,” Gen. Khan said. “I would have liked to have two or three of these people taken to our infantry school and teach some of our officers.”

“My time frame for Bajur is anything from between one and a half to two months to bring about stability,” Gen. Khan added.

Government official Iqbal Khattak said security forces backed by helicopter gunships killed 16 insurgents and wounded another 20 in Bajur on Saturday.

Pakistan’s military effort in Bajur has not kept the United States from launching its own operations, including missile strikes, in the tribal areas, prompting Pakistani protests.

A murky five-minute firefight between U.S. and Pakistani forces along the often-contested border last week further deepened tensions, though officials have since urged calm.

Violence in Pakistan’s northwest has seeped well beyond the tribal areas, even encroaching on Peshawar, a major hub in the region.

Peshawar Police Chief Mohammad Suleman said Saturday that authorities imposed a daylong curfew on several villages on the city’s outskirts. Police and paramilitary forces destroyed 14 houses purportedly used by militants and arrested 35 suspected insurgents, he said.

“We did this operation to purge these areas from anti-state elements,” said Mr. Suleman, who listed no specific charges against the detained.

The Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for a string of recent suicide bombings they called revenge for the Bajur offensive and other military crackdowns in the northwest.

Analysts say the Pakistani Taliban or al Qaeda could have been behind the Marriott blast in Islamabad as well, though the top Pakistani Taliban commander has denied any role.

So far, only a little-known group calling itself Fedayeen al-Islam, or Islam Commandos, has claimed credit, warning Pakistan to stop cooperating with the U.S. war on terrorism.

Khadim Hussain, an Islamabad police official, said Saturday that the latest death toll in the hotel blast was 54. It wounded nearly 270 people.

• Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad, Inam Ur Rehman, Riaz Khan and Asif Shahzad contributed to this report.

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