Sunday, June 7, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s claims that it has defeated the Taliban and regained control of the Swat Valley ring hollow for many of the 3 million refugees and others who fear the government is exaggerating its battlefield successes.

Despite claims by the military it had secured 90 percent of the territory in Swat that was previously under Taliban control, officials were forced to concede that every senior Taliban commander had escaped.

Further compounding the military’s woes, militants ambushed a convoy transporting two Taliban detainees near Swat on Saturday and killed the prisoners, thought to be aides to a cleric close to the Taliban leadership.

Military officials said they were killed either during an attempt to free them, or to silence them before questioning by intelligence officials.

“These two were being transported so that intelligence agencies could investigate them,” the Associated Press quoted military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas as saying. “I wouldn’t rule out that they were targeted or killed on purpose.”

A roadside bomb and gunfire hit the convoy before dawn as it traveled from Sakhakot town near Swat to the main northwestern city of Peshawar, the army said. One soldier also died in the attack, and five were wounded.

The army identified the prisoners as Muhammad Maulana Alam and Ameer Izzat Khan, top aides to hard-line cleric Sufi Muhammad, who is the father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban chief in Swat. They were detained in a raid near Swat on Thursday.

Later Saturday, a man wearing an explosives-laden jacket attacked a police compound in the capital, Islamabad, but was shot before he could enter the main building, the AP reported. Two officers died, and six other were wounded, police said.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack. The Taliban had threatened 10 days earlier that militants would launch strikes in major cities across Pakistan in retaliation for the military’s month-old offensive to oust the Taliban from the Swat Valley.

As the offensive in Swat failed to net any top Taliban leaders, the Pakistani government began offering rewards for anyone who captures, kills or provides information to locate the top 22 Taliban commanders in Swat.

The wanted include Fazlullah, who operates a pirate radio station espousing militant Islam and calling on people to overthrow the government.

An initial bounty of 5 million rupees, or about $60,000, was raised to $600,000.

Maj. Gen. Ijaz Awan led reporters on an army-sponsored tour of Mingora, the main city in Swat, in which he vowed that the army would hunt down Taliban leaders.

“Their death is vital to killing their myth,” he said.

His message came amid a taunting message, purportedly from Osama bin Laden, claiming the battle in Swat had been ordered by the U.S. and would only inspire more Muslim hatred of the U.S.

The Taliban spokesman for Swat, Muslim Khan, added a taunt of his own.

“This is a long war, and we will fight it with adroit planning,” he told the Pakistani wire service Online.

Gen. Awan said the Pakistani army would likely have to remain in Mingora for at least another year to prevent the Taliban from returning.

He even gestured across the river on the outskirts of Mingora as a possible hiding place for Fazlullah and his fighters.

The towering mountains that once made the valley a favorite destination for honeymooners throughout South Asia has instead become a battlefield more likely to highlight the Pakistani army’s inexperience fighting insurgent guerrillas while minimizing civilian casualties.

Mingora was largely deserted. Most of its 350,000 residents have fled as part of 3 million refugees from the region. Most live with relatives elsewhere in Pakistan, while about 160,000 have taken shelter in about 20 hastily built tent camps south of Swat.

“Our crops are destroyed, and we are getting nothing here,” Abdul Sajid, a farmer from the Buner district just south of Swat, told visiting U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke last week. “It is coming, the food, but it is not good. I am not satisfied with the conditions at the camp. We need your help,” he said, according to a dispatch by the Associated Press.

“My house was crushed by shelling,” said Nasir Wahab, a cell-phone seller who fled to the camp with his wife and five children from Mingora, Swat’s largest town, two weeks ago. “We have no money, no work. The food is just rice and bread. We have no bed, no mattress.”

Mr. Holbrooke said the Obama administration has asked Congress to approve an additional $200 million in humanitarian aid for them, on top of $110 million already promised.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of North West Frontier Province, warned that people’s confidence in the military was thin and that it depended on capturing Taliban leaders.

“Neither the security forces had found any bodies of prominent commanders nor other sources had confirmed the killing of any top brass of the Taliban militants,” Mr. Hussain said.

“People would continue questioning credibility of the ongoing operation in Malakand unless the security forces succeed in eliminating the top militants in the shortest possible time.”

Malakand refers to a vast region of the North West Frontier Province that includes Swat, which the government ceded to the Taliban in a February “peace deal.”

Sarfaraz Khan, a professor at the University of Peshawar, told The Washington Times that no one will trust Pakistani authorities or the military until they make good on promises to capture the fugitives.

“Peoples confidence in government claims of securing Malakand could only be restored and states lost writ could only be revived if the heads of Taliban are either arrested or killed. Otherwise, all government claims of controlling the areas and neutralizing the militants are going to be mere self-deception,” he said.

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