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Pakistani warplanes strike Taliban's Waziristan redoubt
Sat Jun 13, 2009 10:52am EDT
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By Augustine Anthony
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani warplanes struck a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud on Saturday, hours after President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to wage war against militancy "to the end."
U.S. officials, thankful that their nuclear-armed ally has gone on the offensive to stop the Taliban tide sweeping across the northwest, said they believed an operation had begun against Mehsud's forces in the South Waziristan, at the southeast extremity of the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.
"We will continue this war to the end," Zardari said in a televised address to the nation broadcast in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Under pressure in their sanctuaries, Islamist militants have responded with a wave of bomb attacks in Pakistani cities, including one on Tuesday that killed nine people and devastated the top hotel in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest.
In the past few days the Pakistani military has expanded its theater of operations, and launched strikes on Taliban fighters across the northwest, most notably in Bannu district at the gateway to the Waziristan region, where according to the military more than 130 militants have been killed since Tuesday.
The military says around 1,300 militants have been killed in Swat and adjoining areas since the army swung into action in late April. Independent casualty estimates were unavailable.
Rising violence has raised fears for Pakistan's stability and for the safety of its nuclear arsenal but the offensive in Swat has reassured the United States, which needs its Muslim ally's support to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.
On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved tripling aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion a year for five years to help combat extremism through development. Pakistan is now the biggest recipient of U.S. aid.
WAZIRISTAN OPERATIONS UNDERWAY
The airstrike on Makeen village came amid expectations of an imminent military offensive in South Waziristan, as the army enters the final stages of a campaign to rid the Swat valley, northwest of the capital, of Taliban.
"Four fighter jets bombed parts of Makeen early on Saturday but we don't know about the extent of damage or any casualties," said Mohammad Khan, a shopkeeper in the village.
The bombs killed seven militants and wounded five, according to two intelligence officials in the area who requested anonymity.
Artillery also pounded militant positions in Mehsud territory overnight after a fort at Siplatoi came under rocket fire, according to intelligence officials in the area.
A U.S. official said the Pentagon anticipated combat operations against the Mehsud network, blamed for many of the suicide attacks in Pakistan, including the assassination of Zardari's wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007.
"We are pleased that this level of force is being contemplated," said the official, on condition of anonymity. Continued...
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