Taliban, Al Qaeda fight to death in Pakistan

September 29th, 2008 - 11:08 am ICT by IANS  

TalibanIslamabad, Sep 29 (DPA) When thousands of Pakistani troops backed by tanks and artillery moved into Bajaur tribal district to retake a strategic checkpoint from Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, many thought it would be a relatively easy walk for professional soldiers with huge fire power.But the tenacious resistance the militants offered and the superb guerrilla warfare they used in the six-week pitched battles with government forces came as more than a surprise.

“Their hit-and-run tactics are incredible. Armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, they suddenly appear in small groups from behind mud compounds, or from their trenches in the cornfields and after a barrage of fire disappear before our soldiers could respond,” said a security official.

“We do not go after them since they know the terrain better than we do,” said the official requesting anonymity.

Recently, the security forces discovered a large network of tunnels that interconnected various thick-walled compounds. The militants, who are equipped with a sophisticated communication system, would fire from one house and flee to the other before receiving artillery fire.

The operation in Bajaur district was launched in August when hundreds of Taliban militants overran an outpost on a strategic hilltop in the Loi Sam area along the supply route commonly used by insurgents to aid their comrades fighting US troops in the Afghan province of Kunar.

According to official claims so far, more than 500 militants with the Islamist extremist Taliban and the Al Qaeda terrorist network have been killed, but the Loi Sam post remains under the control of rebels though 50 percent of the district has been liberated.

Powerful roadside bombs have proved lethal for light vehicles as well as tanks, slowing down the troops march and forcing them to rely more on helicopter gunships, jet planes and artillery fire, which have done more damage to civilians than to the Taliban.

Around one-third of Bajaur’s population of one million has been displaced and according to the locals the civilian casualties are much higher than the few dozen confirmed by the authorities.

“The militants hide in their caves in the mountains during the aerial attacks and climb down to ambush the troops later on,” said a local journalist Saleem Khan. They have killed more than two dozen troops and wounded hundreds more.

The Taliban have vowed to defend Loi Sam because that is the centre of Bajaur. “Whoever controls this area, controls the entire district as well as the route to Kunar,” said Khan.

The commanding officer of Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps, Major General Tariq Khan, told reporters early this week that if the insurgency was dismantled in Bajaur, 65 percent of the militancy in the country’s tribal areas would be brought under control.

The Taliban also realise this and have moved reinforcements of guerillas from across the border as well as from at least three neighbouring tribal districts. The main fighting from the rebel side is being led by an Afghan commander Qari Ziaur Rehman, who is assisted by well-trained Al Qaeda fighters of Arab, Chechen and Uzbek origin.

“There is substantial evidence that heavy weaponry is being moved into Bajaur from Afghanistan,” said Pakistani army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas, complaining that there was no serious effort by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operating in Afghanistan to stop militant infiltration across the border.

The Bajaur battle seems to be spreading to the other areas of Pakistan. On Sep 20, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden lorry through the high security zone in the capital and struck the Marriott Hotel, located barely 500 metres from the offices and residences of the prime minister and president.

However, back in Bajaur there are some positive signs of change, with locals in some areas defying Taliban terror and the Islamists’ hardline Shariah law.

Emboldened members of three tribes - the Salarzai, Tarkhani and Utmankhel - last week announced that they would organise an army of volunteers to defend their respective areas against the Taliban.

“Many people still remain reluctant to support the government, because they are not sure whether (government) forces will fight the militants till the last or withdraw after a peace deal with them as they did in North and South Waziristan,” said a local journalist, who gave his name as Shah.

The fear for the civilians caught in the middle of this fighting is that as soon as the troops leave, the well-trained and well-organised Taliban army will settle in and create a new hell for them, he said.

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