Pakistan to Strike at Leader of Taliban

Posted in Pakistan | 15-Jun-09 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise| Source: New York Times

Awais Ghani, Governor of Northwestern Frontier Province in Peshawar April 15, 2009.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - A Pakistani government official said late Sunday that the country's military had been ordered to start an operation against the Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, the first official confirmation of plans to pursue him.

The official, Owais Ahmed Ghani, the governor of the North-West Frontier Province, an area in western Pakistan where the Taliban operate, said at a news conference in Islamabad that "the forces have been ordered to start the operation," The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Ghani confirmed what had been an open secret for weeks - that Pakistan would conduct a military offensive in South Waziristan, where Mr. Mehsud is based.

The government holds him responsible for dozens of suicide bombings across the country, including one on Sunday in western Pakistan that killed eight people, and the military has long indicated that he would be their next target.

The military has been conducting a campaign against the Taliban in a valley north of Islamabad, the capital, since last month, but the militants' main base is Waziristan, and analysts said Pakistan could not curb their influence without controlling that area.

Still, Mr. Ghani gave no specific time for the start of an operation, saying it would depend on the military, which has declined to disclose details in the past.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the spokesman for Pakistan's military, declined to comment on the matter on Sunday night. He was quoted by The A.P. as saying: "We will give a comment after evaluating the orders."

But Mr. Ghani's comments were the closest Pakistan has come to giving a go-ahead for the operation. Mr. Ghani is the federal government's representative in the North-West Frontier Province, and his remarks represent the government's view.

The military has said that it is waiting for orders from Pakistani officials before beginning any operation.

While the expectation is of an announcement of a major offensive, a Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media, said that military action could take many forms, and that in some respects, it had already begun.

The army bombed buildings in Mr. Mehsud's area on Saturday and has been fighting in the nearby district of Bannu for days.

South Waziristan is a mountainous area on the border with Afghanistan, an entry point for Taliban militants in the war against American soldiers. It is much more difficult terrain than the valley north of the capital, where 22,000 troops are currently fighting, and analysts expect the campaign to be much more costly in lives.

Also on Sunday, The A.P. reported that a missile strike, believed to be by American forces, killed at least five people in South Waziristan, according to unidentified intelligence officials.

Pir Zubair Shah contributed reporting.