Pakistan, Taliban battle for control of Buner
The Pakistani military and the Taliban battled for control of the district of Buner for the third day. Heavy fighting was reported in several regions of the district as the military retook control of the main town and sought to control the passes that link Buner to neighboring districts.
A total of 64 Taliban fighters have been reported killed during the three-day battle. Fourteen Taliban fighters were reported killed in the past 24 hours, military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said in a press briefing in Rawalpindi on Thursday.
Pakistani commandos from the Special Service Group conducted an air assault into the district headquarters of Daggar on Wednesday and secured the town and government buildings. The Frontier Corps has established a headquarters in Daggar, but it is unclear if this is a permanent post or a temporary command post.
The military targeted the mountain passes in the southern and western regions bordering the districts of Malakand, Mardan, and Swat. Taliban forces are said to be reinforcing positions in Swat along the border with Buner to maintain a line of communications and to defend against an anticipated offensive in the Taliban-controlled district.
Pakistani troops secured the Ambala heights, a strategic ridge that overlooks a portion of the district, and the Balandari Pass after heavy fighting with Taliban forces. The Taliban also attacked security forces at the Jawari Pass but were said to have been repelled. The military is heavily relying on artillery and helicopter strikes to hit Taliban forces that have taken the high ground in the mountains. Taliban forces have been reported to have been firing heavy weapons at helicopters as they attempt to strike in the mountains.
The Taliban, who are estimated to have between 500 and 1,000 fighters in Buner, are in control of the Pir Baba Ziarat region as well as at the Sultan Pass. The police station in Pir Baba was torched. The Taliban released 18 of the 70 security personnel captured during operations at the onset of the fighting.
The Buner operation is expected to last another week, Abbas said. The Taliban have slowed Pakistani forces by emplacing roadside bombs along the main roads and have destroyed several bridges. Several suicide car bomb attacks targeting Pakistani forces and checkpoints were repelled.
The Frontier Corps appears to be leading the operation and is being supported by detached units from the Army. A report indicated that more than 6,000 Pakistani regular Army troops, or about two brigades, have been redeployed from the Indian border to Pakistan's northwest. But there are no indications the Army has entered the fray at the battalion or brigade level.
At the end of December 2008, the Pakistani Army withdrew an estimated 30,000 troops from the Northwest Frontier Province and redeployed them to the eastern border with India after the deadly assault on Mumbai by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba stoked tensions between the two rival nations.
The Taliban expansion eastward from the tribal areas has put Pakistani and Western leaders into a panic. The move into Buner has put the Taliban within 60 miles of Islamabad and close to several nuclear facilities and the vital Tarbela Dam. Last week, the local Islamabad government ordered troops to deploy in the Margala hills just north of the city to block a Taliban advance, while the Haripur government beefed up security at the Tarbela Dam.
Last week, an Islamist government official claimed the Taliban was advancing into Haripur and Mansehra. The Taliban move into Mansehra was confirmed as 100 fighters took control of a region along the border with Buner and established bases and a training camp. The Taliban are also expanding their influence into southern and eastern Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province.
Government seeks to keep the Malakand Accord alive at all costs
As the fighting rages in Buner, the Pakistani government has signaled it intends to keep the controversial Malakand Accord active. The peace agreement called for the end of military operations in Swat and the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, in the districts of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir, Chitral, and Kohistan, a region that encompasses nearly one-third of the Northwest Frontier Province.
The government continues to plead with Sufi Mohammed to continue peace talks and is promising to implement the Islamic courts in line with his wishes even if he fails to show up to the negotiations. Sufi is the father-in-law of the radical Swat Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah and led his followers into Afghanistan to fight US forces. Sufi was missing for several days but has reappeared and has criticized the military operations in Buner and Dir.
The military and government are insisting on maintaining the Malakand Accord at all costs, despite repeated Taliban violations of the truce. On Thursday the Taliban kidnapped four policemen and murdered two civilians. The Taliban are again patrolling in Swat and are setting up checkpoints in the region.
For more information on Buner and operations in the region, see:
• Taliban still in control in Dir
April 30, 2009
• Taliban advance on Mansehra
April 29, 2009
• Taliban capture 70 security personnel in Buner
April 29, 2009
• Pakistan launches operation against the Taliban in Buner
April 28, 2009
• Pakistan touts success of Dir operation
April 27, 2009
• Rangers deployed to secure Islamabad outskirts
April 24, 2009
• Taliban advance eastward, threaten Islamabad
April 23, 2009
• Taliban flex muscles in Malakand Division
April 22, 2009
• Taliban moving on Mardan
April 17, 2009
• Taliban move on Buner despite promise to withdraw
April 10, 2009
• Taliban advance on Buner
April 7, 2009