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Militants gaining strength: general

November 14, 2007

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PESHAWAR, Nov 13: A senior military commander said on Tuesday that hundreds of foreign militants were intensifying their activities in the northern district of Swat, but vowed to use force in a ‘selective and precise’ manner to minimise the affect of military operation.

“Force is not the solution to anything. We want minimal application of force and not an indiscriminate military operation. We will use force in a selective and a very precise manner that is based on good intelligence and is most targeted,” Lt-Gen Muhammad Masood Aslam, Corps Commander, Peshawar, said.

The commander’s comments came a day after the military formally took control of the operation against militants, who now control six of the eight sub-districts of Swat.

The military used helicopter gunships and artillery to target suspected militants’ positions for the second day running.

Local residents said that six people were wounded in Tuesday’s shelling, including a woman and a child.

They alleged that the security forces were targeting civilians instead of hitting militants’ positions.

But the military commander said that maxim restraint was being exercised to avoid hitting densely-populated areas.

A statement posted on the military’s website on Tuesday said that four bunkers and an ammunition dump of militants were blown up in Sambat and four militants were reportedly killed in the attack.

It said that a checkpoint established by the militants at Saranai, close to Kabal, was destroyed and five militants were injured.

It also claimed to have destroyed militant positions at Shakardarra and Bara Banda. Frontier Corps troops captured four militants and one Afghan from Chakdarra. They had arms and explosives. A telephone directory had also been found, it added.

The military’s claims, however, could not be independently verified.

But local residents said that militants appeared to have advanced and occupied a vacated police post and government rest house on Shangla Top on the boundary between Swat and Shangla district. There was no official confirmation of the report.

In what he described as a “heart-to-heart talk” at the sprawling lawns of his official residence, the Commander of 11 Corps estimated that between 500 to 800 foreign militants were fighting the Pakistani forces.

Lt-Gen. Masood Aslam defended what many critics describe as a belated government action, insisting that it was largely due to the policies of the MMA government that allowed the situation to “build up by appeasing Maulana Fazlullah.”

He also said that it was the MMA government that had refused to allow the army to take action in Swat after it was first deployed in the region in July.

He emphasised that when the former NWFP government allowed the military to take limited action to help improve the situation in the southern districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan in January last, “we made a huge difference. It’s a different situation there now.”

The military commander said that the government would prefer to negotiate and resolve issues through peaceful means.

“But nobody would be allowed to dictate terms and force his demands through the barrel of the gun.

“The initiative is with the militants. We don’t want to use force unless they do. But if they fire, we will respond with full force. There will be no holds barred.”

Calling for public understanding and consensus, the corps commander said it was time to overcome growing religious extremism and militancy.

He warned that Pakistan was passing through difficult times, but regretted that the people did not seem to realise that the monster of extremism was engulfing the whole country.

“Those living in Lahore and Karachi, who seem to think that all (extremism and terrorism) is happening on the other side of River Indus and they are safe. This is not the case. This (militancy) is going to create problems for all of us in Pakistan,” he said.

Our Correspondent Hameedullah contributed to this report from Swat.