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Pakistani aircraft hit militants near Afghan border
Sun Jun 21, 2009 7:24am EDT
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By Hafiz Wazir
WANA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani forces used aircraft and artillery on Sunday as they stepped up an assault aimed at eliminating Pakistani Taliban commander Baituallah Mehsud.
Security forces have secured much of the scenic Swat Valley, northwest of Islamabad, in the past six weeks and the military plans to extend its offensive to al Qaeda ally Mehsud, holed up in the South Waziristan region near the Afghan border.
The military action came after Taliban gains raised fears for the future of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a vital ally for the United States as it strives to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize Afghanistan.
A full-scale offensive has not yet begun in South Waziristan but fighter jets have been attacking Mehsud's positions in recent days, and did so again on Sunday.
"It's very scary. Jets have carried out heavy bombing. I saw billows of smoke and dust coming from houses that were hit," Jahangir Barki, a residents of Wana, South Waziristan's main town, told Reuters.
Security forces also fired artillery at an office of a top militant commander allied with Mehsud, Maulvi Nazir, residents said. The commander was not there at the time, they said.
The military has said it is trying to clear militants from a stretch of the main road linking Wana with North West Frontier Province.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding out in a militant enclave somewhere in the ungoverned ethnic Pashtun tribal lands along the Afghan border.
The top government official in Swat, which is not on the Afghan border but in North West Frontier Province, said electricity and gas had been restored in many areas and residents who had fled from the fighting could soon come home.
"Hopefully, we'll be receiving our people from June 25 as things are in place in some areas. Other areas will get power and gas as soon as they're cleared by security forces," Khushal Khan, the top government official in the valley, told Reuters.
The military reported sporadic clashes in some parts of Swat on Sunday and said seven militants had been killed in the latest violence.
More than 1,300 militants have been killed in the fighting in Swat and neighboring districts since early May, according to the military. Independent casualty estimates are not available.
Nearly 2 million people have fled fighting in the northwest which intensified in late April when the army moved to push the Taliban out of Buner district, 100 km (60 miles) from Islamabad, before launching an offensive in Swat.
Thousands of people have been returning to Buner since the government announced last Friday it was now safe for people to go home. Continued...
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