Taliban halt talks as Pakistani troops kill 20 rebels (Lead)

April 27th, 2009 - 7:02 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, April 27 (DPA) The Taliban suspended talks with the government Monday as paramilitary troops pushed deeper into Pakistan’s restive north-western region, killing at least 20 militants, officials said.
The Frontier Corps launched an offensive in Lower Dir district of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) early Sunday after the Taliban began extending their authority in the region which was placed under Islamic sharia law this month as part of a peace pact.

“No peace negotiations will take place with the (NWFP) government until a halt in the Dir operation,” said Amir Izzat Khan, a spokesman for hardline cleric Sufi Mohammad, who brokered the agreement in February to end the Taliban insurgency in return for Islamic courts.

Khan explained the peace agreement was still intact and that talks will resume when the operation is halted.

The Pakistani military said the assault was launched at the request of the regional government and residents of Dir, which is also the home district of Mohammad.

Khan said the military operation had left the cleric stranded in his village, adding that there was no contact between them.

According to media reports, Dir’s telecommunication network, both cellular and landline, had been jammed.

On Monday, Pakistan Army helicopter gunships and Frontier Corps troops engaged suspected militant hideouts in the Maidan area of Dir district, killing at least 20 insurgents.

“Search and cordon operations are continuing in the area to capture or flush out the militants,” the military said in a statement.

Security forces killed another 26 militants Sunday during fighting concentrated around the Islampura and Lal Qila areas. An important Taliban commander, Qari Shahid, was among the dead.

One soldier was also killed during an ambush, which left four more Frontier Corps personnel wounded.

The fighting forced hundreds of families to leave Dir for safer places in the neighbouring districts.

The regional government in NWFP maintained the security forces were not carrying out any major operation.

“They are only retaliating to the Taliban strikes on security agencies,” said provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain.

“If the other side (Taliban) don’t do anything, there will be no action from our side,” he said.

The security situation in the region deteriorated last week when militants from the restive Swat district took control of adjoining Buner district, just 100 km from the capital Islamabad.

Though the insurgents later announced a withdrawal, authorities and locals in Buner say scores of militants, including some Al Qaeda fighters, were still present in the district.

Western pressure has mounted on Islamabad to act against the Taliban, who have refused to disarm as agreed under the peace pact.

Pakistan remains indecisive on whether to go all out against the Taliban, who pose a great threat to the country’s stability.

A Taliban spokesman vowed to spread their influence across the country as he condemned the Lower Dir operation.

“The more they try to press us, the more we will spread in Pakistan, and one day we will touch the last corner of Pakistan,” said Muslim Khan.

“Everyone in Pakistan needs our ideology,” he said.

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