LANDI KOTAL: Mangal Bagh has become supreme leader of both the Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for the tribal region of Khyber.
“The decision to elevate Mangal Bagh to the status of supreme commander for Khyber was taken at a joint shura of Taliban and LI ‘commanders’,” highly placed government officials said.
They said the high-ranking ‘commanders’ of both the Taliban and LI had agreed to coordinate with each other and consult on all matters of mutual importance, particularly those pertaining to Tirah valley and the Khyber Agency.
The decision to strike a deal with the LI chief came at a time when the TTP tightened its grip in the areas it had snatched from Ansaarul Islam, a pro-government armed group.
Lashkar-i-Islam is also well entrenched in Sipah, Akkakhel and Malikdin Khel areas of Tirah.
The elevation of Mangal Bagh to the position of supreme commander coincided with a two-pronged army offensive against the TTP and LI, with the military suffering high losses in just four days of intense fighting.
The army launched a ground offensive against the banned LI from the Bazaar-Zakhakhel side while descending into the Bara valley and attacking the LI positions and from the Sheen Qamar side and thus reaching out to the LI hideouts in the area.
The air force fighters also conducted several sorties over the area under the control of the TTP and targeted a number of their hideouts.
“The main thrust of the current military offensive is the Mangal Bagh-led Lashkar-i-Islam while the Taliban area is dealt with through the air strikes,” the officials said, adding that the army had made inroads into the LI-controlled areas.
The areas under the control of both the Taliban and LI are infamous for poppy cultivation and illicit drug trade with Afghanistan. “The money accrued from the narcotics trade is one of the main sources of income for both the groups in the otherwise picturesque valley of Tirah, bordering Afghanistan, Kurram and Orakzai agencies,” the officials said, adding that the Taliban laid their hands on poppy crop cultivated over a vast land when they had taken control of the areas dominated by Kukikhel and Ansaarul Islam in May last year and March this year.
Tirah is one of the first tribal territories where the army set its foot in 2002 in order to curb infiltration of Al Qaeda insurgents into Pakistan after the Tora Bora debacle in Afghanistan. The army remained there for some time, but was later recalled, thus leaving the area at the mercy of local armed groups of Lashkar-i-Islam, Ansaarul Islam and Tawheedul Islam.
Fighting between the groups to gain control of the valley left hundreds of their men as well as innocent people dead over the past eight years.
CASUALTIES: A spokesman for the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said 23 soldiers and 110 militants had been killed during the fierce fighting in Tirah.
The army, backed by fighter planes and helicopter gunships, had launched an operation against the Taliban and its allies in the remote valley four days ago and the fighting continued on Tuesday.
“In four days of fighting, 110 militants and 23 army soldiers have been killed and dozens of militants injured,” a senior military official told a foreign news agency.
“The valley has not been cleared of the militants yet, even though jet fighters and helicopter gunships pounded their positions,” the official said, adding that militants could easily sneak into other semi-autonomous tribal regions near the Afghan border, a strategy they often employed when the pressure was on.