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Pakistani Army 'Turns Corner' In Militant Fight

Pakistani troops patrol in the troubled Bajaur agency (file photo)
Pakistan's military claims to have "turned a corner" in its battle against militants -- including Uzbeks, Chechens, and Tajiks -- one day ahead of a key meeting of Pakistani and Afghan political leaders and Pashtun tribal elders.

The October 27 meeting in Islamabad will focus on ways to tackle rising violence, including possibly opening peace talks with the Taliban.

For weeks, Pakistani soldiers have battled militants in Bajaur region along the Afghan border in the northwestern tribal agencies. Now, the Pakistani military says it has finally turned a corner in its effort to drive out militants.

Major-General Tariq Khan, the commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps that is leading the offensive, made his comments to reporters on October 25 after capturing Loi Sam, a strategic village in Bajaur region.

"We have now captured Loi Sam, which was supposed to be considered the end-all as far as the militants were concerned," Khan said.

Khan described Bajaur as the militants' center of gravity, giving them access to other Pakistani tribal agencies and to Afghanistan. He said militants had made massive preparations to defend the area. He added that 300 foreign fighters had been captured in the fighting, including Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Afghans.

Since August, Khan said his forces had killed more than 1,500 militants. His figures could not be independently verified.

Pashtun Regions

Bajaur is one of seven semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun regions in northwest Pakistan where Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have expanded in recent years. The United States has urged Pakistan to eliminate militant havens there. U.S. forces in recent weeks have carried out missile strikes and a commando raid in areas southeast of Bajaur.

Running alongside the military effort is a diplomatic push, however, to distance Pashtun tribal elders as well as Taliban leaders from foreign militants belonging to Al-Qaeda and other groups.

Pakistani authorities are encouraging Pashtun tribesmen to revive traditional militias known as lashkars to battle militants and secure captured areas. That strategy has been compared to the Awakening movement in Iraq, in which Sunni tribesmen have risen against Al-Qaeda and driven them out with help from U.S. forces.

One Pashtun tribal elder, Mian Masood Jan, says his people have had enough of the trouble that foreign fighters had brought to the region.

"The Pakistan army and Pakistan's tribesmen are quite capable of defending their own soil. We will not accept any interference from outside. That should be stopped. We take responsibility for our land," Jan said.

Such efforts will be addressed on October 27-28, when Pakistani and Afghan political leaders and Pashtun tribal elders meet in Islamabad to discuss ways of tackling rising militant violence, including possibly opening talks with the Taliban.

The Pakistan-Afghanistan "Jirgagai," or mini-jirga, is a follow-up to a grand assembly in Kabul last year in which delegates called for talks with Taliban militants to end bloodshed in both countries.

Last month, Saudi officials hosted an encounter in Mecca between Taliban and envoys of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in a sign that reconciliation efforts might be afoot.

While both sides have played down the Mecca meeting, insisting that no peace talks took place, sources who attended the gathering told RFE/RL's Afghan Service that it might have served as a prelude to future peace negotiations.

However, the Afghan government says it will not engage in talks with people who maintain ties to Al-Qaeda. How to severe such ties looks set to be a key topic in the talks this week in Islamabad.