(Recasts with start of offensive in Buner)
By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD, April 28 (Reuters) - Pakistani forces backed by fighter jets and helicopter gunships began an offensive on Tuesday against Taliban fighters in a key valley 100 km (60 miles) northwest of the capital, Islamabad.
Buner is the latest target of an operation launched on Sunday in nearby Lower Dir to stop the Taliban’s creeping advances amid fears in the West that militants were zeroing in on Islamabad. Both Buner and Lower Dir are part of Malakand division. [nSP478249]
The Taliban began expanding their influence in Malakand this month after President Asif Ali Zardari submitted to their demands for Islamic sharia law there to end fighting in Swat valley. Swat is also part of Malakand. Here are some questions and answers about the offensive.
WHAT IS THE SCOPE OF THE OFFENSIVE?
Just days after Zardari’s move, the Taliban moved their fighters to Buner and nearby Shangla district. Military officials say upto 500 militants are present in Buner. Security forces on Sunday began a counter-offensive in the nearby Lower Dir district after a truck convoy of the forces came under attack.
Upto 75 militants and 10 soldiers were killed in two days of fighting. Officials say they have almost cleared Lower Dir of the militants.
The offensive is expected to be extended to Shangla if the militants do not withdraw. Residents also fear a showdown with security forces in Swat after militants kidnapped two policemen and threw the body of one into a river.
Militants have also plastered posters on the walls of a bazaar in Swat warning journalists to show more balance in their reporting.
WILL SWAT FIGURE AT WASHINGTON SUMMIT?
The fighting in Malakand came on the heels of a visit by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Islamabad, and speculation abounds over the part Mullen may have played in persuading Pakistan to act.
Zardari is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington on May 6-7 in a three-way meeting. The Swat deal is expected to figure in those talks.
Zardari has pointed out he cannot unilaterally brush aside an agreement between the government in the North West Frontier Province, led by his ally, and religious clerics from the area.
WHERE DOES THE SWAT DEAL FOR SHARIA STAND?
It’s hanging in the balance.
The setting up of a sharia justice system for Malakand was approved by parliament and signed by the president, but it has still to be implemented. Government officials say it won’t be until the Taliban disarm.
Pakistani authorities struck a deal for sharia in Swat with Sufi Mohammad, a radical cleric who renounced militancy after being released from jail last year in order to act as a go-between with the Taliban.
The government had hoped Mohammad would persuade the Taliban, led by his son-in-law Fazlullah, to lay down arms. Government officials say they will appoint judges for sharia courts but Mohammad has to deliver on this first.
Mohammad’s aide said talks with the government have been suspended to protest the military operation. The Taliban are unlikely to lay down arms and fighting is expected to intensify in the coming days.
WHAT DOES ARMY THINK OF SWAT DEAL?
The Swat deal was struck after consultations with the army.
Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani said last week the military halted its operations in Swat early last year in order to give politicians space to negotiate, but said the army would not allow militants to impose their will on the country.
Military officials said they were ready to take on the militants but it is for the civilian government to decide the timing and scale of the operation.
Kayani has to counter a general perception that the army had become demoralised and reluctant to fight in Swat.
HAS THE SWAT DEAL WEAKENED THE CIVILIAN GOVERNMENT?
The concession certainly made the government appear weak, and emboldened the Taliban. It also exposed a lack of coherence in Pakistan’s broader polity.
A secular Pashtun nationalist party called the Awami National Party (ANP) first gave way to the militants’ demands for sharia, known as the Nizam-e-Adl, in Malakand.
The ANP leads the government in North West Frontier Province and is a coalition partner in the national government.
The ANP asked Zardari to approve the introduction of the sharia for Malakand. The president then passed the issue to parliament, which approved it, leaving him with no option but to sign off on it.
Sufi Mohammad’s denunciation of parliament, democracy and the Supreme Court as "un-Islamic" forced all political parties, notably the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to rethink, and also helped reduce support for the deal. But there is plenty of unease over whether to use force to subdue Swat once again.
Government officials say they plan to push through a security strategy through parliament on how to deal with militancy. (Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)