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Air strikes aim to repel Taliban in Pakistan

Fighting fierce near capital; police seized

Women and children evacuated from the Buner Valley were on the outskirts of Peshawar yesterday. Pakistani commandos dropped behind Taliban lines and took the main town in the strategically important area. Women and children evacuated from the Buner Valley were on the outskirts of Peshawar yesterday. Pakistani commandos dropped behind Taliban lines and took the main town in the strategically important area. (Adil Khan/ Reuters)
By Munir Ahmad
Associated Press / April 30, 2009
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ISLAMABAD - Pakistani air strikes killed dozens of Taliban fighters in a fierce struggle to drive them from a district near the capital, while the militants took over police stations and kidnapped more than 50 security forces, the army said yesterday.

One member of the security forces also died, the top military spokesman said.

Taliban threaten wave of attacks against US surge. A4

Also yesterday, a suspected US missile killed at least five alleged militants in South Waziristan, a tribal region near Afghanistan, while shoot-outs in the volatile southern city of Karachi killed at least 20 people.

Pakistan is acting under intense US pressure to take a tougher line against Islamist militants emerging from the strongholds along the Afghan border, where Al Qaeda leaders - including Osama bin Laden - could be hiding.

Government forces have begun trying to force the Taliban back into the Swat Valley, from where they had pushed out in the direction of an increasingly nervous Islamabad.

Major General Athar Abbas said helicopters delivered commandos to the town of Buner, in a once-peaceful farming region in the northwest, yesterday morning just as ground troops fought their way in from three directions against an estimated 450 to 500 militants.

Militants were putting up stiff resistance and detonated three roadside bombs near the Ambela Pass, a key gateway to the mountainous region. Three more troops were injured, he said.

After warplanes struck late Tuesday, attack helicopters engaged the "miscreants" and killed more than 50, Abbas told reporters in Rawalpindi, south of Islamabad.

Rather than fleeing, militants seized three police stations in the north of Buner on Tuesday and kidnapped 70 police and paramilitary troops, he said. He said 18 of the troops were "recovered" yesterday, but declined to offer more details.

Security forces prevented some reporters from entering the area and telephone services were interrupted, making it hard to verify the army's account of the fighting.

The Taliban fighters' advance into Buner brought them to within 60 miles of the capital, raising concern about the stability of the nuclear-armed country. The army also says troops have killed scores of militants in recent fighting in Lower Dir, another area neighboring Swat.

Both lie within Malakand, the region included in the government's much-criticized peace deal. Officials agreed to impose Islamic law in return for peace in a region devastated by violence.

Pakistani officials said the Islamic law concession ended the militants' justification for continuing to retain arms.

But officials in Washington, which is propping up Pakistan's army and government with billions of dollars and worrying about the rising insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan, have slammed the peace process as a surrender and welcomed the resumption of military action.

The Pakistani offensives are "exactly the appropriate response" to the Taliban advance, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Tuesday. "We are hopeful and encouraging of the Pakistani military that they are able to sustain these operations against the militants and to stem this encroachment on the more populated areas of Pakistan."

The Obama administration has an opportunity to reiterate that demand when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari joins his Afghan counterpart in Washington for talks next week.

The subject of US missile strikes may also come up. Pakistan has publicly protested the drone-fired attacks, though analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing them.

Two of the five suspected militants killed in yesterday's strike on a vehicle in the Kani Guram section of South Waziristan were foreigners, said two intelligence officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Four people were wounded, they said.

Mohammad Ayub, a tribesman living nearby, said a drone was flying in the area just before the evening prayers. Soon after the strike, Taliban militants surrounded the scene, he said.

Reflecting alarm in Western capitals at the advance of extremists in Pakistan, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told lawmakers yesterday that Britain would boost aid to root out terrorists. "The greatest international priority is the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan," Brown told the House of Commons. He called the border area a "crucible of terrorism."