- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — The military started shelling Taliban hide-outs in the Bannu district in Pakistan’s northwest Tuesday, a local government official said.

It was not immediately clear if the reported Bannu shelling signaled the opening of a new front against militants. Pakistan’s military has already launched an offensive against the Taliban a separate region in the northwest, the Swat Valley.

However, the top military spokesman denied that troops had begun a planned operation against tribesmen in the region, which is next to the border districts where al-Qaida and the Taliban are believed to be seeking to plan attacks on American forces in Afghanistan.

Kamran Zeb Khan, Bannu’s district coordination officer, told the Associated Press that the shelling began Tuesday morning after a deadline given to tribal leaders in the region to hand over militant suspects by the end of Monday had expired.

Security forces were firing artillery in an area of Bannu called Jani Keel, Khan said, adding that a curfew had been imposed in all surrounding areas.

Bannu sits alongside South and North Waziristan, two semiautonomous tribal districts bordering Afghanistan where al-Qaida and the Taliban are believed to be entrenched, forming bases to plan attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Tuesday that the idea that a larger operation in the tribal area was, “speculation. I can’t comment on that.”

Abbas would not confirm or deny the reports of shelling in Bannu. He only said that Pakistani troops have been preparing an operation against tribesmen in the region — but that it had not yet begun.

He said the planned operation in Bannu would be in response to attacks by local tribesmen on security forces in the region. He said the tribesmen were also implicated in the hijacking of a convoy of students from a military cadet school last week. The students were eventually freed.

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