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US envoy praises Pakistan progress against Taliban

world Updated: Aug 16, 2009 13:56 IST

President Barack Obama's special envoy to Pakistan praised the country's "very significant" progress in taking back key territory from the Taliban and promised more weapons for the fight against extremists close to the Afghan border. Richard Holbrooke began an official visit on Sunday, his first since the reported death of the militants' leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a CIA missile strike Aug 5.

Heavy rain forced him to postpone a trip to the northwestern Swat Valley, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have begun to return after the military declared in July that it had ended Taliban control of the area, a US Embassy official said on condition of anonymity citing policy.

On Sunday, residents in Swat reported finding 18 bullet-ridden bodies lying in the streets, some of them believed to be those of militants loyal to the local Taliban chief.

Holbrooke told reporters travelling with him on Saturday that the Pakistani military's success in Swat was a sign of progress, along with the apparent death of Mehsud, which he described as a serious blow to the militants.

"I cannot tell whether the Taliban have been destroyed or dispersed as a result of this operation until I go myself," he said. "But one thing that is quite obvious is that security forces regained Swat and Buner from the Taliban, which itself is very significant."

Washington has reportedly been anxious for Pakistan to capitalise on the momentum by launching a ground offensive in the Taliban-controlled tribal areas west of Swat _ including Mehsud's stronghold of Waziristan. However, Holbrooke said the timing was up to the Pakistani military, which has been launching aerial assaults against militant bases near the border.

"It is not for the US to decide. It would be the decision of the Pakistan government as to when and how go against the terrorists in Waziristan," he said.

The Taliban takeover of Swat _ a scenic alpine enclave that once boasted Pakistan's only ski resort _ had become a symbol of the extremists' expansion in the nuclear-armed, mostly Muslim country of 175 million.

The government's various peace deals with militants in Swat and elsewhere had frustrated Washington, but three months ago, the army launched its largest offensive in years after the Swat militants broke a peace agreement and advanced into Buner district, just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Islamabad, the capital. Holbrooke said the US planned to provide more helicopters and other equipment such as night-vision goggles to the Pakistani military to aid the fight, as well as give economic help for the cash-strapped government. He also said that Pakistan's shifting of its military focus from its eastern frontier near India westward to its border with Afghanistan was a positive sign.

Pakistani forces have been winding down their three-month offensive in Swat but still face pockets of militant resistance and violence. Hundreds of thousands of the roughly 2 million people who fled during the military offensive have been returning amid tight security.

On Sunday, residents in different areas of Swat woke up to find a total of 18 bodies lying in the streets. One body was in the main town of Mingora, seven in Kanju town and the rest in four other villages. Local police would not comment on the bodies, but residents interviewed on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation said they recognized some of the men as militants loyal to local Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah.

Maj. Nasir Khan of army's Swat Media Center said the military had nothing to do with the deaths and theorized that local residents who suffered under the Taliban's harsh rule _ in which they banned music, burned down girls' schools and killed anyone who resisted their harsh interpretation of Islamic law _ were taking revenge. "It could be outcome of personal enmities in those areas," he said.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden car into a police checkpoint in Swat, killing at least five people. It was the first suicide attack there since July, when the military declared it had regained control of the valley.

Pakistan has said troops will remain in Swat until the fighters of Fazlullah _ a notorious Taliban leader whose thousands of followers are blamed for the violence _ are eliminated. Although the military says it has killed or captured a number of Fazlullah's commanders, he has evaded capture.