Pakistan pummels Taliban bases
Government raises pressure against militants
PARACHINAR, Pakistan - Helicopter gunships pummeled a key Taliban commander’s bases in Pakistan’s northwest, killing at least 12 insurgents yesterday as government forces ratcheted up pressure on the militants following their top leader’s reported death, officials said.
Military helicopters destroyed several bases and hideouts yesterday morning near the Kurram and Aurakzai tribal regions run by militant commander Hakimullah Mehsud, three intelligence officials said.
Hakimullah Mehsud is a clansman and potential successor to the Pakistani Taliban chief, Baitullah Mehsud, who was reported killed in a CIA missile strike Aug. 5.
Yesterday’s attacks were on bases in tribal areas near the Afghan border, about 60 miles north of the Mehsud clan’s main base in South Waziristan.
The intelligence officials said troops saw the bodies from the air but did not retrieve them. Several militants were also wounded, and the casualties could rise because some people were believed to be buried under the rubble of their hideouts, said the officials, who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Meanwhile, a new poll suggests that Pakistanis’ views on the Taliban have shifted dramatically in the past year, with 70 percent now opposing the militants.
But according to a Pew Global Attitudes survey, the United States doesn’t fare well either, with 64 percent of Pakistanis seeing Washington as an enemy.
Pakistan is one of only four countries among 20 recently surveyed by Pew that does not show sharply improved views of the United States since President Obama took office.
The nonpartisan research center, based in Washington, conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,254 adult Pakistanis in late May and early June, mostly in urban areas. It conducts a similar poll each year.
Pakistan’s military redoubled its fight against the Pakistani Taliban - a loose federation of Islamist groups with various tribal and regional factions - in April after militants broke a peace deal and took over a district about 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad.
While mostly based in the tribal areas in the northwest, the militants had in recent years spread eastward into the onetime tourist haven of Swat Valley, executing police and burning down girls’ schools in attempts to force the population to adhere to their hard-line interpretation of Islam.
The military took back control of Swat after a two-month assault, and now government forces have increasingly targeted the Taliban strongholds in the tribal belt, where the militants are also believed to give shelter to Al Qaeda leaders and help plan attacks on US forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
For years, Pakistan tolerated its homegrown militancy, but increased attacks inside Pakistan - reportedly masterminded by Baitullah Mehsud at the urging of his Al Qaeda allies - forced the government to launch large-scale strikes against them.
Militant attacks have killed at least 2,686 Pakistanis since 2008, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the country’s National Assembly yesterday.
Malik said there have been 1,367 militant attacks since the beginning of last year, the majority of them in North West Frontier Province - where Swat lies - and in the tribal areas next to Afghanistan.
The government has also persuaded other tribal warlords to turn against the Taliban.
On Wednesday, fierce clashes erupted after fighters loyal to Baitullah Mehsud attacked the forces of a progovernment warlord, Turkistan Bitani, on the fringes of the South Waziristan region. At least 70 people were reported killed.
Pakistan’s army later sent in helicopter gunships as reinforcements to pound about 300 Taliban fighters attacking Bitani’s mountain stronghold, two intelligence officials said.
It was impossible to independently confirm the death toll, as the fighting was in a remote mountainous area that is off-limits to journalists.
The fighting followed days of confusion and competing claims over Baitullah Mehsud’s fate. While US and Pakistani officials say they are almost certain he is dead, Taliban commanders insist he is alive.