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Army repels Taliban in NW Pakistan after hotel blast
Wed Jun 10, 2009 11:46am EDT
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By Robert Birsel
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan launched a new operation against Taliban fighters in the northwest on Wednesday, a day after an attack on a luxury hotel in Peshawar killed at least nine people, including two foreign U.N. workers.
Taliban militants have stepped up attacks in cities since the army launched a campaign in April to clear Taliban fighters from a stronghold in Swat and other parts of northwest Pakistan.
More than 1,300 militants and 105 soldiers have been killed in Swat, and the army's resolve has heartened U.S. officials, who have been worried that nuclear-armed Pakistan could slide into chaos unless the Taliban's advance weren't stopped.
With the Swat offensive in its closing stages, the military said on Wednesday it had launched an operation in Bannu, 150 km (94 miles) southwest of Peshawar, after up to 800 militants slipped into the district.
"Gunships, artillery and ground troops are being used in the operation," a military official said on condition of anonymity, but he had no details on militant casualties.
Bannu lies at the gateway to the Waziristan tribal region, another Taliban and al Qaeda stronghold, and the Islamist fighters aimed to raise havoc in other parts of the northwest, according to a military statement.
The attack on Peshawar's Pearl Continental, a hotel frequented by VIPs and foreigners visiting the capital of North West Frontier Province, will inevitably reinforce concerns over insecurity in Pakistan.
Less than a third of the hotel's 150 rooms were occupied, but the blast blew out all the windows, and caused several walls and a section of floors to collapse on the front side.
U.N. agencies issued statements saying five workers, including a Serbian man, a Philippine woman and three Pakistanis, were among those killed in the assault on the Pearl Continental,
Qazi Jameel, a senior police official, told Reuters that nine people were killed in the Peshawar hotel attack, and rescuers were still looking for more victims.
The toll excludes dead militants and people still missing. Some officials gave higher tolls. A British and a Nigerian man, and a German woman were among more than 60 wounded.
Pakistan's decision to opt for military action in Swat has been helped by a shift in public opinion. That support might ebb if the welfare of some 2.5 million people displaced by the conflict in the northwest is mishandled.
The United Nations is heavily involved in relief efforts and about a dozen U.N. staff were staying at Pearl Continental.
Militants had shot their way into the forecourt and exploded a truck bomb in front of the lobby, evoking nightmarish memories of the attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad last September that killed 55 people. Continued...
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