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U.S. Envoy Sees Pakistanis Backing Fight Versus Taliban

Richard Holbrooke at a press conference in Islamabad on June 5
NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Pakistan's politicians and armed forces are showing more cohesiveness in the fight against Islamic extremists and public opinion is increasingly on the government's side, the U.S. envoy to the region has said.

"Public opinion is solidifying behind the government. People are really fed up with what the Taliban and the other extremists have done," Richard Holbrooke told Reuters shortly after arriving in the United States from Pakistan.

Pakistan's military has been fighting the Taliban in the Swat Valley, northwest of the capital, for more than a month after the militants took advantage of a peace pact to conquer new areas in the region.

It remains "critically important" that the campaign against the Taliban and other extremists should succeed and that an estimated 2.5 million refugees displaced by fighting should be able to return home securely, he said.

"So this is far from over," Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said after a speaking engagement in New York late on June 8. "But events in the last few weeks have been very positive from the government's point of view. I also found an increased sense of cohesiveness on this issue between the government, the opposition and the army."

'Big Step Forward'

Compared with the political crisis of three months ago, Pakistan now has opposition leader Nawaz Sharif in support of the government on the fight against the Taliban and the military is also behind the campaign.

"That's a big step forward," Holbrooke said.

Pakistan's offensive to expel Taliban militants from the Swat Valley has been welcomed by Western allies worried that the nuclear-armed country was sliding into chaos.

The military says more than 1,200 militants and 90 soldiers have been killed in the Swat offensive.

Pakistan's support is vital in a broader campaign to defeat Al-Qaeda and stabilize Afghanistan.

In his speech on June 8 to the American Council on Germany, a trans-Atlantic business and policy forum, Holbrooke renewed his calls on other Western countries to provide more aid to help the refugees in Pakistan who fled the fighting.

"The international community has not responded adequately to their needs so far," he said.

The United States has pledged more than $300 million for the Pakistani refugee crisis, compared with less than $200 million from the rest of the world, Holbrooke said.

"We have called on other countries to join us in this effort. In the end we are going to need several billion dollars for this small part of Pakistan."

Conditions for the refugees are relatively good but they need to return home to avoid further problems, he said.

"Politically they must go back. If they do not, there will be a political explosion," Holbrooke said, praising efforts by Germany to help address the situation. "But we really hope there will be more support from other countries."