- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2009

ISLAMABAD | Pakistani troops backed by attack helicopters stepped up an operation to push the Taliban farther away from the capital Friday, saying they killed at least 55 fighters.

The army launched the drive to retake Buner, a poor, hilly region just 60 miles from Islamabad, on Tuesday after Taliban from the neighboring Swat Valley overran it under cover of a controversial peace pact.

The Obama administration has welcomed the government assault. It views the Swat deal, which calls for the imposition of Islamic law in the surrounding area of northwest Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, as a surrender to allies of al Qaeda. And it has expressed growing doubts about Pakistan’s stability as the Taliban militants have edged closer to Islamabad.

On Friday, the army said its troops routed about 80 militants dug in on the Ambela Pass leading into Buner from the south and were trying to link up with government forces holding the main town of Daggar.

Soldiers and helicopters in the Ambela area destroyed about a dozen cars and motorbikes laden with explosives, apparently for suicide missions, spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.

Two soldiers died and eight more were wounded when a suicide bomber detonated explosives hidden in a house beside a road, Gen. Abbas told reporters.

He said warplanes bombed several militant bases farther north and that at least 55 militants had died in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total killed since operations began to more than 100.

Swat Valley’s Taliban fighters appear to have been emboldened after their bloody, two-year campaign in the valley led the government in February to agree to a peace accord that imposes Islamic law in the surrounding Malakand division, a wide swath that includes Swat and Buner.

Sufi Muhammad, a hard-line cleric mediating the peace process, held talks with a provincial government leader Friday in the northwestern town of Timergara. Provincial Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain said an agreement was close on the main sticking point — which senior Islamic judges should be appointed to the new courts in Malakand.

Mr. Muhammad said the Taliban would stop fighting if their version of Islam carries the day.

“If the government enforces [Islamic law] in its true letter and spirit, I guarantee that the Taliban will lay down their arms and help restore peace in this region,” Mr. Muhammad told reporters after the meeting.

The United States is increasingly viewing the Pakistan-Afghanistan area as the most critical front in the battle against al Qaeda-inspired terrorism.

The State Department said Thursday the number of people killed in terrorist attacks in Pakistan last year rose by more than 70 percent, despite an overall drop in such violence worldwide, Reuters news agency reported.

The number of people killed in terrorist attacks — including the Sept. 20 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad — rose to 2,293 from 1,340, according to the data released by the department. The number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan more than doubled to 1,839 from 890, U.S. officials told reporters.

These increases occurred even as the death toll from worldwide terrorism fell to 15,765 from 22,508 in 2007 and the number of overall attacks dropped to 11,770 from 14,506, they said.

The number of people killed in Iraq fell to 5,016 from 13,606, U.S. officials said, while the number of attacks declined to 3,258 from 6,210. But the number of people killed by terrorism in Afghanistan, where the United States and other nations are fighting a renewed Taliban insurgency, rose to 1,989 in 2008 from 1,961 a year earlier, the department said. Attacks in Afghanistan rose to 1,220 from 1,125.

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