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Pakistan says Khyber offensive successful

Pakistani security forces took control on Sunday of a militant area in the Khyber region, a day after launching an offensive to push back gunmen threatening the city of Peshawar.

world Updated: Jul 01, 2008 08:36 IST
Faris Ali

Pakistani security forces took control on Sunday of a militant area in the Khyber region, a day after launching an offensive to push back gunmen threatening the city of Peshawar.

"It has been a successful operation. No collateral damage has been reported. The writ of the government has been established," top Interior Ministry official Rehman Malik said in Peshawar. "Peshawar is totally safe. We won't allow anyone to disrupt the peace of the city," he told reporters.

The Khyber region is home to the Khyber Pass through which supplies for Western forces in Afghanistan pass, but traffic from Peshawar to the border had not been affected, an official said.

The region had been virtually free of militant violence until this year but security has deteriorated in recent months.

The offensive is the first major military action the new government has launched against militants since it took power after February elections.

Major-General Alam Khattack said on Saturday his forces were focused on Bara town, 15 km (10 miles) southwest of Peshawar.

Paramilitary troops fired mortar bombs at militants on Saturday and blew up several positions, including the house of militant commander, Mangal Bagh. One militant was killed.

In recent weeks, Islamist vigilantes loyal to Bagh have been roaming into Peshawar neighbourhoods. Riding pick-up trucks, fighters wielding Kalashnikovs threatened music and video shop owners, and ordered barbers to stop shaving men's beards.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, whose government hopes to negotiate an end to militancy, said force was a last resort.

"In some places the option of dialogue was vanishing and no government can afford a parallel government," he told reporters.

"GO HOME"

Bagh, who an official said had moved to the remote Tirah valley before the offensive, is not allied with Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, and his men are not known for crossing into Afghanistan to attack Western troops.

Bagh told the News newspaper his Lashkar-i-Islami (LI), or Army of Islam, would not fight the offensive: "I have told LI volunteers to go home and not resist."

He said he did not know why security forces were attacking because his group did not harbour foreign militants or have links with the Taliban or al Qaeda.

Despite a curfew, some people in Bara were out in the main market although most shops were shut.

"He (Bagh) brought peace and got rid of the criminals in our area. He's good for us," said resident Fazal-e-Mehboob standing by the debris of Bagh's house.

Peshawar residents had begun to fear that the city could fall into the clutches of the Taliban, even though the main army garrison for the northwest is in the city of 3 million.

Apparently in response to the offensive in Khyber, Pakistani Taliban leader Mehsud, based in South Waziristan, said he was suspending talks with the government and threatened retaliation.

In the Swat valley in Northwest Frontier Province, two soldiers were killed in a roadside blast on Sunday, the latest violence in the former tourist valley where authorities signed a pact with militants last month.