Swat operation ending, Mehsud next target, says Pakistani minister

June 19th, 2009 - 9:21 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, June 19 (DPA) Pakistan’s Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar said Friday that the army’s operation against the Taliban in the country’s northwestern region was nearing its end and people uprooted by the conflict could start returning to their homes from Saturday.
The government forces launched a major offensive in Swat and three neighbouring districts around two months ago when the Islamist insurgents failed to observe the terms of a peace deal.

Mukhatr told the English-language Dawn news channel that after clearing Swat and nearby areas the government forces would go after militants based in the tribal district of South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan.

The planned new offensive in South Waziristan will target warlord Baitullah Mehsud, who has been blamed for dozens of suicide attacks across Pakistan, including the one that killed the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

“He (Baitullah Mehsud) is working against the interests of the state of Pakistan and we have to protect our interests at all costs,” said Mukhatr.

Pakistani jets early Saturday pounded a militant hideout, a training centre and an Islamic seminary in various areas of South Waziristan, a local security official said.

“Casualties are feared but for the moment we don’t have any confirmed numbers,” added the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We have a huge network of informers who are after him and the moment his whereabouts are known, the forces are going to hit him,” the defence minister told Dawn television.

Mehsud, who has a $5 million bounty on his head for being a key Al Qaeda facilitator, heads a force of between 15,000 and 20,000 hardened guerrilla fighters. He also has a squad of hundreds of suicide bombers.

As the offensive in South Waziristan progresses, analysts have raised questions over the defence minister’s claim that the Swat operation was nearing its conclusion.

“No doubt the military has cleared much of Swat but fighting still goes on and neither of the Taliban’s top leaders has been captured or killed,” said security analyst and retired army brigadier Mehmood Shah.

“Saying that the operation in Swat is over is quite premature at the moment,” he added.

A military statement said Friday that four terrorists had been killed and two apprehended in various clashes during the last 24 hours in Swat and three neighbouring districts. One soldier was also wounded.

“Most of the people would start returning when they feel that the Taliban have been eliminated once and for all,” he added.

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