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US praises Pakistan progress vs. Taliban

Associated Press / August 17, 2009

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ISLAMABAD - Pakistan’s wresting control of key areas from the Taliban has given enough “breathing room’’ to allow US-Pakistan relations to shift focus to energy and economic development, although security remains a vital concern, Washington’s special envoy to the region said yesterday.

Pakistan has a chronic shortage of energy and millions endure prolonged power cuts every day because the demand for electricity far outstrips the supply. The unstable power supply has damaged local industry, with factories unable to keep up production levels and small businesses struggling to cope, and has sometimes triggered riots.

“We shifted the focus deliberately and consciously today to the issue that every Pakistani tells me is on their minds more than any other - [the] economy and above all energy,’’ Richard Holbrooke said after meeting with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. “We are concerned with more than just the western tribal areas - although those remain a central concern.’’

Holbrooke, who is expected to visit Pakistan’s commercial capital of Karachi in coming days, gave no details but said projects would be announced later.

Washington had long wanted Islamabad to crack down on militants with strongholds along the western border with Afghanistan, a rugged and lawless tribal region where the Pakistani Taliban are believed to be sheltering Al Qaeda leaders and helping to plan attacks on US troops across the border.

The military has been winding down an offensive against the Taliban that began in late April around the northern Swat Valley and led to some 2 million people being displaced. The offensive marked a turn in Pakistan’s antiterrorism fight in part because a Taliban takeover of the alpine enclave had become a symbol of the extremists’ expansion.

The displaced have been returning home and the area has been largely secured, although the military said it still faces pockets of Taliban resistance.

As if to underline Holbrooke’s words, a suicide bomber attacked an army checkpoint in Swat’s main town of Mingora last night, wounding four soldiers, said Lieutenant Colonel Akthar Abbas, army spokesman.