Monday, November 30, 2009

Under fire Pakistan president claims success against Taliban

ISLAMABAD — Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has claimed "considerable success" in a military offensive against the Taliban, but criticism of his rule mounted Sunday threatening further instability.

Zardari, who is battling a Taliban insurgency, increasing unpopularity and strained relations with the military, made the remarks during a telephone conversation late Saturday with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

They come as an amnesty protecting Zardari and key aides from corruption cases expired, and after he handed over control of the country's nuclear arsenal to the prime minister in an apparent move to appease his critics.

"Referring to the ongoing drive against militancy in the tribal areas of South Waziristan, the president said that considerable success had been achieved," presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in a statement.

"The operation would continue until the area is cleared of terrorists and the objectives are achieved," Zardari told the British prime minister.

But Brown told BBC television on Sunday that Pakistan must do more to hunt down the Al-Qaeda-linked militants hiding out along its borders, saying it was not enough to isolate them, but Islamabad must "break them in Pakistan."

"We have to ask ourselves why eight years after September the 11th, nobody has been able to spot or detain or get close to Osama bin Laden," he said.

Pakistan sent about 30,000 troops backed by fighter jets and helicopter gunships into South Waziristan on October 17, in the most ambitious operation yet against the Taliban in their mountain stronghold near the Afghan border.

Although there has been some resistance in the region, many officials and analysts believe most of the estimated 10,000 Taliban guerrillas in the district have escaped into neighbouring Orakzai and North Waziristan.

Pakistan is also facing political uncertainty after the legal amnesty protecting dozens of politicians from prosecution expired Saturday.

Zardari enjoys immunity as president, but his government is seen as too weak to secure an extension of the ordinance in parliament, and its expiration opens the door for possible legal cases against senior cabinet ministers.

The president on Saturday gave control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, widely seen as a move to fend off criticism by making good on electoral promises to devolve greater power to parliament.

"Now the time has come to fulfil promises and Mr President should keep his promises," said opposition politician Shahbaz Sharif, brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

"He has been making promises to repeal the 17th amendment and now the time has come that finally he should honour his promises."

The 17th amendment to the constitution was introduced by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, and gives the president the power to dissolve parliament and sack the prime minister.

Zardari replaced Musharraf as president last year after his Pakistan People's Party won elections, but his approval ratings are at rock bottom as the nation struggles with Taliban violence and a recession.

Security has drastically deteriorated in Pakistan since Islamabad joined the US-led "war on terror". Hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants fled into the tribal belt after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

The South Waziristan offensive has also prompted a retaliatory surge in suicide attacks targeting civilians and security officials.

The United States has welcomed Pakistan's military efforts but is reportedly pressuring the civilian government to also counter militants on Pakistani soil who attack NATO and US troops across the border in Afghanistan.

On Sunday, eight militants were reported killed in clashes with troops in the tribal districts of Khyber -- the main supply route for NATO trucks heading to Afghanistan -- and in South Waziristan, military officials said.


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