|Bhutto would use economic, military means.|
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said yesterday she would use economic as well as military means to defuse Pakistan's pro-Taliban insurgency, warning "foreign forces" could invade unless the government curbs spreading militancy.
She was speaking to journalists in Pakistan's troubled northwest, where this weekend she launched her campaign for Jan. 8 parliamentary elections - ahead of key talks slated for today with another opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, who is urging a boycott of the vote.
Bhutto also raised the specter of militants moving on Islamabad and gaining control of a key nuclear installation - widely seen as an unlikely scenario. While playing on fears of a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty, her remarks also reflected her willingness to sustain Pakistan's unpopular military operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in its lawless tribal regions.
That fight has been spearheaded by key US ally President Pervez Musharraf, to tackle militants that fled Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in 2001. But the jihadists have regrouped and expanded, posing a growing threat to Pakistan's own security.
"If Pakistan has no control in the tribal areas then tomorrow foreign forces can come there," Bhutto said in Peshawar, a stronghold of religious parties. It was an apparent reference to US and NATO forces operating on the Afghan side of the border.
Bhutto also said economic development was crucial to defusing the pro-Taliban insurgency in the impoverished north, where Pakistani soldiers have clashed with insurgents in areas that now include the Swat valley, a former tourist attraction 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad. Security forces have killed some 220 fighters in Swat over at least the past 10 days, army spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said. The army also reported arresting 26 suspected militants yesterday.
"We will use the military in the tribal areas, but we disagree that a military operation is the only solution to the problem," Bhutto said. "The people of tribal areas are our own people. We want to bring them into the modern age by giving them progress and prosperity."
The government, promised $750 million in US aid, says it has that same strategy, and claims to be already promoting road-building and development projects in the tribal regions, regarded as the likely hiding place of key Al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.
But its inconsistent tactics, which in the past two years have swung from heavy-handed military action to failed efforts to make peace with pro-Taliban forces, have only served to alienate local tribesmen.
Bhutto, a Musharraf rival who shares his liberal and pro-Western outlook, has drawn flak in Pakistan for comments made before her return from exile, when she said she would cooperate with the American military in targeting bin Laden if Pakistan could not do the job alone.
That kind of talk has put her - like Musharraf - in the cross-hairs of Islamic militants. Suicide bombers struck at her October homecoming parade in Karachi, killing more than 140 people.