- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2009

KHAR, Pakistan — Pakistani troops have defeated Taliban militants in two strongholds near the Afghan border after a grinding offensive, officers in both military operations said Saturday.

Pakistan’s military showcased its gains in the area as it faces criticism for failing to dislodge militants from the nearby Swat region and amid concern that growing political turmoil in the country will undermine its resolve to tackle extremism.

Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan told reporters flown to Bajur by helicopter that the militancy has been dismantled in the region, a gateway for Afghanistan-bound militants where the army says the Taliban set up a mini-state with its own courts and tax systems.

Khan claimed his troops now control Bajur’s roads — making it impossible for militants to move freely.

“They have lost,” he said. “Their resistance has broken down.”

However, he acknowledged that five top militant commanders got away, possibly to Afghanistan.

American commanders say the Afghan province of Kunar which borders Bajur is still treacherous for U.S. soldiers. The U.S. has earmarked it for some of the thousands of reinforcements being deployed to Afghanistan this year.

Khan said he hopes military operations in the tribal regions will be over by the end of this year.

Also Saturday, Col. Saif Ullah, a commander in the nearby tribal region of Mohmand, said troops had repelled the insurgency there and that it is “under the control of law enforcement agencies.”

Pacifying the two regions would be a significant achievement for Pakistani security forces and could lead to a reduction in cross-border attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

A Pakistani military offensive that began in August has killed more than 1,500 people — almost all militants according to the army — and forced hundreds of thousands of residents to flee to safer areas.

Troops and insurgents are observing a cease-fire in Swat, a scenic valley once popular with tourists, while the commander of the Taliban considers a proposed peace deal that the United States and NATO worry could turn the region into a militant haven.

Both Bajur and Kunar have been mentioned as possible hiding places for al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

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