Pakistan sets price on Taliban chieftain
Army ramps up strikes on group
ISLAMABAD - Pakistan ramped up its campaign against the Taliban’s leader, Baitullah Mehsud, yesterday, placing a bounty on the chieftain’s head and launching air strikes on his stronghold in the country’s northwest.
The government has expressed its determination in recent weeks to eliminate Mehsud, who is viewed with increasing alarm in Islamabad as a major threat to security in the country. His group has been blamed for a string of suicide bombings across the nation that has killed more than 100 people in the past month.
The intensifying conflict between Pakistani security forces and Mehsud has been centered in North and South Waziristan, part of the mountainous tribal belt in the northwest, where the army appears to be preparing for a fresh offensive aimed at eliminating Mehsud and his militant network.
But the Taliban has not been cowed by the government’s attacks, claiming responsibility for a strike yesterday that killed 12 soldiers in North Waziristan and vowing to continue its assaults if the military does not halt its operations.
Last week, Mehsud’s group also demonstrated its ability to strike wherever it wishes, launching a suicide attack on Friday in Pakistani Kashmir, the first such attack in the divided territory targeting government troops.
Yesterday, the government upped the stakes in its battle with Mehsud, publishing an announcement in two national newspapers offering a 50 million rupee ($615,000) reward for information leading to his capture or death.
“The condemnable and cruel acts of these callous people are not only earning a bad name for Pakistan, but also for Muslims worldwide,’’ the announcement said. “Such people are certainly killers of humanity and deserve punishment.’’
The US State Department has already authorized a reward of up to $5 million for Mehsud.
Qari Hussain Ahmad, a Taliban commander with close ties to the militant leader, said the bounties will have no impact on its fight with the government. Hussain, who has a 10 million rupee ($123,000) reward on his head, pledged “more surprises and more attacks’’ against the government.
Pakistan’s military continued its bombing campaign on suspected militant hideouts in South Waziristan, with fighter jets striking the village of Kani Guram overnight, leaving eight militants dead.
Helicopter gunships also hit positions in Shah Alam and Raghhzai, killing three fighters, intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.
It was not possible to independently confirm the casualty counts or the identities of those reported killed as journalists have little access to the remote, dangerous region.