Cleric says anti-Taliban raids to spread insurgency in Pakistan

Cleric says anti-Taliban raids to spread insurgency in PakistanIslamabad - A hardline cleric who negotiated a peace deal between the government and Islamist militants said Thursday that anti-Taliban military operations in Pakistan's north-west would spread insurgency in the region.

Sufi Mohammad issued the warning in the restive Lower Dir district of North-West Frontier Province, where he had gone into hiding after paramilitary troops launched an offensive against the rebels there at the weekend.

More than 75 militants and 10 soldiers were killed in running battles, during which the security forces, backed by helicopter gunships and jet aircraft, destroyed several hideouts of the rebels.

"Operations in Dir and Buner are promoting Talibanization," the private Geo News television channel cited the cleric as saying after he resurfaced at a gathering of supporters in Dir's Maidan area.

Both the Dir and Buner districts are part of the Malakand Division, which was placed under Islamic sharia law by the regional government in return for an end to a months-long rebellion in the region's troubled Swat Valley.

But the militants, who were emboldened by the government's submission, refused to disarm and instead extended their control beyond Swat.

Hundred of militants infiltrated Buner early this month, causing serious concerns at home and abroad, given the district's proximity to the capital, Islamabad, just 100 kilometres to the south.

Government forces launched a ground and air assault Tuesday in Buner, where they claimed to have killed at least 50 insurgents besides destroying two ammunition dumps. One soldier also died.

Troops dropped from helicopters Wednesday seized control of Daggar, Buner's main town, after linking up with police and paramilitary soldiers already present in the area.

Major General Athar Abbas, the military's chief spokesman, told reporters that the troops also recovered 18 of 70 police and paramilitary personnel captured by the militants.

The deadly assaults were encouraged by the United States, Pakistan's key ally in the fight against terrorism, which earlier accused the nuclear-armed country of abdicating to the Taliban militants.

Criticizing the military operations, Mohammad insisted that peace could not be restored without introducing a way to enforce sharia law.

Islamic courts are already functioning in parts of Malakand, but the cleric and the regional government have been at a deadlock over appointing judges for an appellate court.

Mohammad's spokesman Amir Izzat Khan told Geo Thursday that the cleric was ready for talks on the issue but "no meetings have been scheduled as yet."

Provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain also expressed the government's willingness to meet the cleric whenever he was available.