Taliban lying low to fight another day in Pakistan

May 24th, 2009 - 9:25 am ICT by IANS  

Taliban By Nadeem Sarwar
Buner (Pakistan), May 24 (DPA) Dressed in worn grey-coloured traditional shalwar kameez and carrying no belongings, Ghazan Khan (a fictitious name) was sitting on a small rock just a few metres from an unmanned post at Pakistan’s remote Ambela Pass, and he was not looking at all like a Taliban fighter.

Despite the long black beard, he looked little different from the rest of the refugees, who were either returning home briefly to harvest the wheat crop or to see how much damage to their houses or shops the fighting between government troops and the Taliban had done.

But unlike everyone else, Khan was not going to Ambela village. Instead he was waiting for the bus from Ambela heading to Mardan.

Khan wanted to die fighting Pakistani troops in Buner district, but his commander asked him to flee to the neighbouring district and wait quietly for two to three months to be called back for another round of guerrilla war.

Following orders, Khan and 29 other fighters divided into five groups and dumped their AK-47 assault rifles, light machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, some suicide jackets, and wireless sets at five different places in the mountains.

Each man parted from the rest to walk alone through safe mountain paths to reach the adjoining districts of Mardan and Swabi.

After a week of walking and occasional crawling to avoid army snipers and helicopter gunships, Khan descended from the mountains and mingled with the hundreds of refugees waiting to enter Buner while the curfew was relaxed.

“Our people are giving stiff resistance but you know, the army has tanks, helicopters and planes. Therefore, they have divided mujahideen in two groups - some will continue the fight and the others will either hide in the mountains or leave the area for a while,” said Khan at Ambela Pass, an entry point connecting Buner with the rest of Pakistan.

“When this fight is over and the military regains control in Buner, we will wait for some weeks. Then we will come back and start a new fight from the mountains,” said Khan.

Khan, 20 and a resident of Buner, joined the Taliban months before the military raided the district from the adjoining Swat valley, where a peace deal with the government had emboldened the militants to infiltrate the neighbouring areas.

He was sent back to Buner last month to recruit fighters. The new recruits joined more than 400 Swati Taliban rebels who entered Buner in April.

Buner’s capture by the Taliban alarmed the Pakistani government and the international community, as the move brought the Taliban dangerously close to Islamabad, the capital of the nuclear-armed Muslim country.

Hundreds of government military and paramilitary troops moved into Buner April 28 and ten days later into Swat to launch a major offensive, which is being seen as a test of the capacity and the determination of the Pakistani forces to defeat militancy.

The results of the fight have been little promising so far. Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas vowed in the early days of the operation that the area would be clear of Taliban within a week, but the resistance put up by the few hundred guerrillas surprised everyone. Three weeks later, the Taliban still control parts of Buner.

The military has claimed to have eliminated 1,100 rebels, losing 50 of their own men in Buner, Swat and nearby districts. The numbers could not however be independently verified.

A win still incomplete, the military offensive has displaced hundreds of thousands from the district.

According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the numbers of people displaced from Malakand region, where Buner, Swat and six other districts are located, have reached 1.5 million.

This is adding to the pressure on the military to complete the mission as soon as possible.

“We want this operation to end,” said a 39-year-old farmer returning to Ambela village with his wife to harvest the wheat crop. He left behind nine children with their grandmother at a refugee camp in Mardan.

The security forces “are only killing us”, the farmer added.

Even if the military were to be successful in taking control of the district, the Taliban are not likely to give up.

“Just remember, this fight in Buner is not over. We will be back soon. This land belongs to God and God’s laws will be enforced here,” Khan said, before abruptly standing up and entering an arriving mini-van heading back to Mardan.

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