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Pakistan seeks to allay West`s fears of army pull out PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Reuters, Dera Ismail khan, Pakistan - The Pakistan army sought on Sunday to allay Western fears that plans to pull back some troops from tribal lands meant it was relaxing its fight against a Pakistani Taliban commander.

The army launched an offensive in January against Baitullah Mehsud's fighters in their stronghold in South Waziristan, one of Pakistan's seven semi-autonomous tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan.

Mehsud, who declared himself the leader of the Pakistani Taliban and declared war on the government late last year, has been boxed in, surrounded in the Mehsud tribal lands since then.

The army is now pulling back, to let the estimated 200,000 people who fled the fighting to return home.

"We are now adjusting our positions to allow these refugees to move back to their homes because their crops are being destroyed... and their animals are dying of starvation," local army commander, Major General Tariq Khan, told journalists on a trip to Waziristan organised by the army.

He said his troops will have to relocate as it would be risky to hold onto their current positions with a civilian population on the move.

"The army is still in control," said the general, who commands a 15,000 strong division from Dera Ismail Khan, a small city on the banks of the Indus River, south of Waziristan.

Pakistan's new government, sworn in at the end of March, has begun a policy of engagement, negotiating through tribal leaders to persuade Mehsud to halt militant operations from the region.

Mehsud has been blamed for a wave of suicide attacks, including one that assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto last December.

NATO has said attacks on its forces in Afghanistan have increased since Pakistan began negotiating, and that previous peace agreements with militants effectively created sanctuaries for Taliban and al Qaeda in the tribal areas.

The Mehsud lands do not border Afghanistan, and the territory where they live is squared off by four roads -- all of which are in the hands of the army.

Under the laws of the semi-autonomous region, the army cannot enter the tribal lands unless there is a serious threat of instability, as there was late last year, when Mehsud's fighters attacked forts manned by the Frontier Corps.

Roads in the tribal areas, however, are considered the property of the federal government, giving the army vital control, said the general.

Khan said the army was ready to strangle the Mehsud tribe economically, if necessary, by using laws introduced in the British colonial era to collectively punish the tribe for any transgressions committed by its members.

Khan said he was not involved with the peace talks and his job was to create an environment for the government to negotiate from "a position of strength".

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