Military halts offensive in Pakistan for Ramadan

10:46, 01 September 2008
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The Muslim holy month begins today

Pakistan suspended fighting in the volatile northwest Monday for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and some of the 300,000 people displaced by air strikes and gunbattles started packing up belongings to return to their shattered homes, according to AP.

The military warned, however, that any provocations in the Bajur tribal region, a rumored hide-out of Osama bin Laden near the border with Afghanistan, would bring immediate retaliation.

While Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar welcomed a cessation in fighting, and reiterated an offer to negotiate with the government, he said militants would not lay down their arms as demanded.

Pakistan`s five-month-old government at first tried peace talks with militants, but those efforts bore little fruit. It has turned to force in recent weeks, including using helicopter gunships and jets to strike suspected insurgent hide-outs.

The operation in Bajur began in early August. Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said it has killed more than 560 insurgents. Malik did not commit to a formal end to the operation but said an estimated 300,000 people displaced from Bajur could return to the region "without any fear."

Some started gathering their belongings from sweltering, mosquito-infested relief camps so they could go home for Ramadan. But others, barely scraping by, said they could not afford to make the journey and would remain with their families in cramped tents for the holy month.

American officials have pressed Pakistan to crack down on militants in its tribal regions, fearing Taliban and al-Qaida-linked fighters involved in attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan use those border areas as safe zones.

Defense analyst Talat Masood said the suspension of massive military operations in Bajur, which began in early August, risked squandering any gains made by security forces so far.

"Definitely it will give a fair chance to the militants to regroup, consolidate their strength and stage a come back," he said. "This has happened in the past."

The U.S. is suspected of launching a series of missile strikes targeting alleged militant compounds in Pakistan`s rugged and lawless tribal region along the border, including one Sunday that left four dead.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar said the suspension of the operation in Bajur was welcome and reiterated an offer to negotiate with the government. However, he said militants would not lay down their arms as the government has demanded.

The region was quiet Monday, the day before Ramadan officially goes into effect in Pakistan, as the military halted its activities.

Bajur has been the primary focus of military operations against insurgents, though there have also been clashes in the northwestern Swat Valley, a formerly popular tourist resort.

It was not immediately clear whether authorities were also suspending fighting there, but Taliban militants said, in any case, they intended to keep up their activities.

"This is not a war, but jihad, and this is our faith that rewards for good deeds and that is multiplied during the holy month," said Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman in Swat.

The numbers and scope of the operations have been almost impossible to confirm because of the remote, dangerous nature of the regions. The Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for a string of recent suicide attacks, calling them revenge for the offensives.

As the crackdown has proceeded, Pakistan`s government has become increasingly embroiled in political turbulence.

A short-lived ruling coalition forced Pervez Musharraf — the longtime U.S. ally in the war on terror — to quit the presidency on Aug. 18. The coalition then rapidly fell apart over disputes about Musharraf`s successor and how to reinstate judges he fired last year.

Asif Ali Zardari, the head of the main ruling Pakistan People`s Party and the widower of slain ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is considered the favorite to win lawmakers` votes for the presidency on Sept. 6.

The PPP is considered generally in line with U.S. goals in fighting extremists, but because of deep anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, it has to tread carefully. Many Pakistanis blame the violence in their country on Musharraf`s decision to support the U.S.

AP

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