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Pakistan army targets militants

world Updated: Jul 17, 2008 22:05 IST
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A top Taliban leader threatened on Thursday to attack the provincial government in northwestern Pakistan unless it quits after the army launched an operation against militants in response to an ambush that killed 17 troops.

Spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas said army forces, backed by helicopter gunships, drove out militants from the town of Zargari, and were advancing to other militant hideouts nearby. He gave no report of casualties, but local police official Saif Ullah said two civilians were hurt on Thursday when a mortar landed near their home on the outskirts of Zargari.

Militant supporters of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud on Saturday ambushed a convoy of paramilitary Frontier Corps near Zagari and killed 17 troops. Five militants also died in the clash, which came days after police arrested a militant known as Rafiuddin, a deputy of Mehsud.

"We have cleared those areas of militants where they attacked and killed our soldiers," Abbas said.

An army statement said the operation was called by the government of North West Frontier Province to secure Hangu district, where Zagari is located, and would continue until the area was cleared of militants.

A spokesman for Mehsud blamed the provincial government for military operations in Hangu and other frontier regions. Maulvi Umar said in response, Taliban would not honor peace deals signed with provincial authorities and threatened violence if the North West Frontier Province administration, which came to power after Feb. 18 national elections, did not quit.

"We will attack the provincial government and the ANP leaders after five days if they do not quit," he said, referring to the Awami National Party.

Provincial government spokesman Iftikhar Hussain rejected the threat, saying the administration had a popular mandate. "We will not step down (based) on a threat from some individual," he said. "They are threatening to follow the path of violence, while we believe in peace."

The ANP government has negotiated peace deals with militants and tribes in regions including the Swat Valley and Khyber since the election that ousted from power allies of President Pervez Musharraf.

In a shift in policy, the new civilian administration has promoted dialogue to curb the escalating militant violence in Pakistan rather than relying on the military force often used by Musharraf, a former army strongman and key ally in the US-led war on terror.

US officials have expressed concern that the peace deals give Taliban and al-Qaida militants more freedom in Pakistan's tribal regions and say the tactic has led to a spike in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.