- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani warplanes struck a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud on Saturday in retaliation for the killing of an anti-Taliban cleric the previous day, the military said.

Mehsud’s network is blamed for many suicide attacks, including the assassination of President Asif Ali Zardari’s wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007.

Hours before the attack on Mehsud’s stronghold, Mr. Zardari vowed in a televised address to wage war against militancy “to the end.”

Under pressure in their sanctuaries, Islamist militants have responded with a wave of bomb attacks in Pakistani cities, including one on Tuesday that killed nine people and devastated the top hotel in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest.

A prominent anti-Taliban cleric who had condemned suicide bombings was killed in a suicide bomb attack in the city of Lahore on Friday. Six other people were killed.

“In response to the suicide attack … two terrorist compounds were targeted,” the military said in a statement, adding that the number of casualties could not be ascertained.

Intelligence officials in the area, who declined to be identified, said seven militants were killed and five wounded.

Rising violence has fed fears for Pakistan’s stability and for the safety of its nuclear arsenal, but the military action has reassured the U.S., which needs its Muslim ally’s help to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved tripling aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion a year for five years to help combat extremism through development.

In the past few days Pakistan has launched strikes on the Taliban across the northwest, most notably in Bannu district at the gateway to Waziristan — where, according to the military, more than 130 militants have been killed since Tuesday.

The military says about 1,300 militants have been killed in Swat and adjoining areas since the army swung into action in late April. The military said Saturday that 41 “terrorists” and one soldier had been killed in the previous 24 hours.

Independent casualty estimates were unavailable.

The air strike on Mehsud’s compounds in Makeen village came amid expectations of an imminent offensive in South Waziristan, as the army enters the final stages of a campaign to rid the Swat valley, northwest of the capital, of the Taliban.

Artillery also pounded militants’ positions in Mehsud territory overnight, intelligence officials in the area said, and a U.S. official said the Pentagon anticipated combat operations against the Mehsud network.

The military has launched attacks in other parts of the northwest over the past few days in what analysts see as an attempt to keep the militants distracted and to “soften up” their positions.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Friday the military wanted to stop militants from regrouping outside Swat.

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