ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's army claims to have routed Taliban militants in a stronghold near the Afghan border but there was no sign of Osama bin Laden or al Qa'eda number two Ayman al-Zawahri. The government ordered a halt to the operation to allow some of the 300,000 families who fled air strikes and combat in the Bajur region to return home for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins today in Pakistan.
However, officials reported that troops fired on militants seen moving toward a security post yesterday, and that stray mortar shells killed at least two civilians. US officials recently stepped up calls for Pakistan to put more pressure on militants using bases in its remote tribal areas to mount cross-border attacks on Nato and government troops in Afghanistan. Some analysts have warned that the pause in the Bajur operation would only allow the militants to regroup. Pakistani officials said yesterday, however, that their forces had killed 560 Pakistani and foreign fighters and thwarted a push to make Bajur into a militant fortress.
The Army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas said about 20 members of the security forces died and 30 were missing. "In our view, the back has been broken," he said. "Main leaders are on the run and the people of the area are now openly defying whatever the militants had achieved there." Officials including the former Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, have mentioned Bajur as a possible hiding place for Mr bin Laden or Mr al-Zawahri. Rehman Malik, the interior ministry chief, said yesterday that authorities also received a report that Mr al-Zawahri's wife had been in the neighbouring tribal region of Mohmand. Pakistani forces stormed the location but didn't find the couple, he said. Pakistan's five-month-old government initially held peace talks with Taliban and al Qa'eda-linked militants living in mountainous border regions. It has struck several accords, some of which remain in place, but has also turned to force against hardliners in Bajur and the nearby Swat region, pounding suspected hideouts with helicopter gunships and fighter jets. Taliban spokesman, Maulvi Umar, said that he welcomed the lull in fighting. However, he said militants would not lay down their arms as demanded. Defence analyst, Talat Masood, said the suspension of military operations in Bajur 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 comeback," he said. "This has happened in the past."