Pakistan Army Masses for Assault
By STEPHEN GRAHAM – 5 hours ago
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Some 15,000 Pakistani troops have massed for a major assault on Islamic militants in a scenic northern valley, whose fall has raised concern about Pakistan's ability to withstand rising extremism, the army said Saturday.
Security forces have been fighting in the Swat Valley, a former tourist destination just 100 miles from the capital, since July, when a bloody army raid on a radical mosque in Islamabad sparked a wave of militant violence.
Foreign fighters have allegedly joined the armed followers of Maulana Fazlullah, a pro-Taliban cleric in the valley, amplifying Western fears that swaths of Pakistan near the Afghan border offer an increasingly safe haven for al-Qaida.
Washington is expressing concern about rising violence in Pakistan, where well over 1,000 security forces, civilians and militants have died in the past five months.
A senior Pakistani commander said Saturday that the army had recorded 28 suicide attacks in that period.
"It's not Iraq, but it is getting worse," Michael Vickers, the Pentagon's assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told The Associated Press on Friday in Washington. "We would always like them (Pakistani authorities) to do more given the importance of the problem," he said. "They're certainly doing a lot."
The army said Saturday that troops backed by helicopter gunships and artillery were attacking militants to push them back into the mountains overlooking the Karakoram Highway, Pakistan's vital overland route to China.
Between 35 and 40 rebels were killed in that push on Friday, it said in a statement. That raised the number of militants killed this week to over 100, according to army reports.
A police official said some civilians had died after shells struck their homes. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to address the media, but gave no further details.
Sirajuddin, a Fazlullah spokesman who goes by one name, confirmed that the military had intensified attacks but said his forces had suffered only "some" casualties.
"Our mujahedeen are still in a strong position, and God willing we will defeat the enemy," he told AP by telephone. He accused the army of killing civilians by shelling residential areas.
In another burst of violence, police said at least 30 people died in clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Parachinar, a town near the Afghan border.
During a rare media briefing at the army's headquarters, a senior commander gave details of the threat cited by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf when he imposed a state of emergency on Nov. 3.
Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha said militants from Afghanistan as well as the lawless Pakistani border regions of Waziristan and Bajur had reinforced the followers of Fazlullah in Swat.
Pasha, director general of military operations, said the army had assembled about 15,000 troops in Mingora, the valley's main town and would launch its main offensive within days.
"We will bottle up as many of them as possible and then eliminate them," Pasha said. "This is our killing ground."
The Associated Press: Pakistan Army Masses for Assault