Pakistani troops secure key town in Buner Valley

PakistanIslamabad - Special forces on Wednesday secured a key town in an area of restive north-west Pakistan that was captured last week by militants as helicopters dropped troops to expand the push against the Taliban there, the military said. The rapid-deployment tactic came a day after ground forces, backed by helicopter gunships and jet aircraft, launched an offensive in the Buner Valley to flush out the rebels.

At least 50 Taliban fighters have been killed in the first two days of the operation, army spokesman Athar Abbas said.

One member of the Pakistani security forces was also killed and three were injured, he said, adding that the militants were putting up "stiff resistance."

Taliban fighters from the adjoining Swat district overran Buner, located 100 kilometres north-west of Islamabad, this month, sparking fears among Western governments, given its proximity to the capital, and demands for decisive military action.

Helicopter-borne troops landed in Daggar, Buner's main town, and its surrounding areas Wednesday and linked up with local police and paramilitary soldiers already deployed in the region, a statement by the military said.

According to a security official, helicopter gunships and jet fighters also pounded suspected militant positions around Daggar, where the insurgents have dug out bunkers and established checkpoints on some of the main land routes into the valley.

On Tuesday, militants captured 70 police and paramilitary soldiers before releasing 18 of the paramilitary Frontier Corps troops a day later, Abbas said.

The offensive in Buner began soon after paramilitary troops wrapped up a similar operation in the nearby district of Lower Dir, where up to 75 militants were killed in three days of clashes. Ten soldiers also died.

Renewed fighting in the Malakand division - which includes Buner, Dir and Swat - has threatened a controversial peace deal between the regional government and the Taliban under which Islamic sharia law was introduced in return for an end to the Taliban insurgency.

A spokesman for the hardline cleric Sufi Mohammad, who brokered the peace pact, said peace talks between both sides could not proceed until the military halted its assaults. He added that the government would be responsible for any spread of violence.(dpa)