Sheikh Jana / The New York Times – 2009-05-06 22:54:18
Civilians Flee as Pakistani Forces Hit Resistance
Sheikh Jana / The New York Times
PAKISTAN (April 30, 2009) — The Pakistani forces air-dropped commandos into the main town in Buner on Wednesday and quickly retook control of it from Taliban militants who flooded into the area last week, the military said. But the district was far from recaptured and the military may be in for a hard fight.
Villagers who fled the fighting and made it to this village on the plains said the military was bombing in Buner with fighter jets and firing rockets from helicopter gunships as Pakistani troops battled the Taliban on the ground for a second day.
Despite a curfew imposed by both the Taliban and the army, one villager, Walayat Khan, a cowherd in his 20s who did not know his exact age, said everyone was trying to get out of the district.
Some people were leaving on foot, as few vehicles were available. Those who left were forced to use back roads since the Taliban and military forces had blocked the main arteries leading into and out of Buner.
Mr. Walayat left his village, Kowgah, at dawn with 18 members of his family, mostly women and children, after jets bombed two nearby villages held by the Taliban on Tuesday afternoon. He left his brother and elderly father behind in the house, he said.
“Jets dropped bombs three times,” he said. “There was smoke and dust; I could not tell if they hit houses. We packed our things and then started moving because we thought they might hit us as well.”
Coming after intense criticism, both here and in Washington, of the military’s inaction, the air and ground campaign against the Taliban was the most intense waged by the army in six months.
President Obama said Wednesday that he was “gravely concerned” about the stability of the Pakistani government.
Commandos of the Special Services Group were air-dropped into Daggar, the administrative center of Buner, a district of about one million people just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, the military said.
The use of the American-trained special counterterrorism forces, jets and mobile units was a sign of the military’s seriousness of purpose in this fight, said a former government official, who did not want to be identified while discussing national security matters.
No civilians were displaced in Daggar, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military spokesman, said at a news briefing in Rawalpindi. That part of the operation appeared to have gone fairly smoothly.
But elsewhere heavier fighting was reported. Military units backed by paramilitary forces were deployed in a three-pronged attack against the Taliban in Buner from neighboring districts, General Abbas said.
Those forces met fierce resistance in areas in the north, south and west of Buner — in Nawagin, Pir Baba and Sultanwas, where the Taliban have established positions, he said.
“We are facing stiff resistance in the area of Ambala,” General Abbas said, referring to the area near Mr. Walayat’s village, where local people said the Taliban were firmly entrenched and blew up a bridge on Tuesday to block the army’s advance.
Taliban were also reported to be patrolling a key road in the north near the Pir Baba shrine and the boundary with the Swat Valley, which is a stronghold for the militants. They were also firing on helicopters from the mountains, local reporters said.
Heavy fighting was also under way in Karakar, in the north of the district, where the Taliban were holding hostage about 70 police officers and members of the Frontier Constabulary. Eighteen of the men were later released, General Abbas said, without providing more details.
He said the army was concerned about hurting civilians. “Our constraint is that we are launching an operation in an area where militants have held the local population hostage,” he said. “We are trying to ensure there is minimum collateral damage and minimum displacement of local people.”
Civilians driving on the roads, including students, were wounded when their vehicles came under fire, local reporters said. Several civilians, including a child hit by a bullet, were taken to the hospital in Swari, reporters for the newspaper Dawn said.
People were unhappy with the military operation, Mr. Walayat said. But his relatives in the neighboring district of Swabi who gave shelter to the extended family said they supported it.
They live less than six miles from the boundary with Buner and said Taliban militants had come into their area just two days ago.
“People are happy with the operation because the government gave them a deadline to leave and the people are saying that the Taliban really want to take over Tarbela Dam and Islamabad,” said Yaqoub Khan, 42, a farmer who has made space in his house for 18 relatives who fled the fighting.
“If they had not come, the Taliban would have established positions here in this village by now,” he said.
Killings by the Taliban have shocked the local people, another relative said. Five days ago militants cut the throats of eight local policemen operating a post in the village of Chingalay in the south of Buner, just a few miles from Sheikh Jana.
“They cut their tongues out as well,” said Afsar Khan, 47, who saw the bodies of two of the policemen when he attended their funerals nearby.
Yet he said he doubted the military would be able to stop the Taliban advance. “This thing will expand,” he said. “It started from Afghanistan, then we saw Bajaur, Swat. Buner was the only place they could not gain a foothold,” he said.
But the local resistance in Buner to the Taliban also failed. “We expect this thing will come here as well,” he said.
Carlotta Gall reported from Sheikh Jana, and Salman Masood from Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Ismail Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.
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