Declan Walsh, Mark Tran – Gaurdian.co.uk May 6, 2009
Pakistani security forces launched artillery and rocket attacks on Taliban positions in the Swat valley this morning amid growing expectations of a major military offensive.
Helicopter gunships fired on a militant-controlled emerald mine outside Mingora, the main town in Swat, while soldiers fired artillery towards Taliban positions from a paramilitary base, residents said.
The Taliban seized control of Mingora on Monday, attacking government installations and forcing a retreat by outgunned police. The fresh fighting, triggered by an attack on Taliban positions in neighbouring Buner, precipitated the collapse of a controversial peace deal in the one-time tourist haven.
The government is indicating that an organised army offensive against the Taliban is imminent, while provincial officials say they expect 500,000 refugees to flee the valley, adding to another 500,000 people displaced by earlier violence.
Thousands of Swat residents left yesterday by car or on foot. But many more remain trapped inside their homes amid fighting and the reimposition of a government curfew.
The attacks come as Barack Obama today holds talks with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington amid deepening American anxiety about the growing Taliban threat in the region.
Richard Holbrooke, the US administration's special representative for the region, told Congress yesterday that America's "most vital national security interests" were at stake in Pakistan.
The US president and national security team will meet the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, separately and then together in what US officials describe as "historic talks".
Obama has asked Congress to approve a large increase in aid to $1.5bn (£1bn) a year over five years.
Holbrooke said that Pakistan was not a "failed state" but faced tremendous challenges that could affect the safety of its nuclear arsenal.
He said the US needed "to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan's support and involvement."
Holbrooke said the talks, which will continue at a lower level tomorrow, would be "historically important".
"We are talking today about an issue that is of direct importance to our national security," he said, noting that comparisons of the situation to the Vietnam war were inaccurate because the enemy in that case had never posed a direct threat to the US. The Taliban and al-Qaida remained the most serious threat to national security, he said.
The fighting in Swat follows the collapse of a three-month truce with the Taliban in the valley where the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said there has been an abdication of government control to extremists.
Senior administration officials will urge Pakistan to step up its own fight against militants as the US moves to expand military operations in Afghanistan. The US team will seek assurances from Zardari, who is seen as a weak leader, that his country's atomic weapons are secure.
"The president is deeply concerned about the security situation," the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said yesterday. "That's why we're sending additional troops to Afghanistan, and that's why we'll talk with both the Afghans and the Pakistanis about our renewed commitment in helping them seek the aid that they need to address those extremists."
Senior administration officials say the goal is to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together on a shared extremist threat to their countries. They hope the message will carry extra weight coming straight from Obama.
The outcome, they acknowledge, will be measured by concrete results. That includes, for example, the degree to which the Pakistani army – with its traditional strategic focus on India – takes the fight to militants within its own border. US officials say there is no intention to put American forces in Pakistan, which Pakistani officials strenuously oppose. "That's the end of that subject as far as we're concerned," one official said.
Ahead of Obama's discussions with Zardari and Karzai, Clinton will see them and their delegations separately at the state department before bringing the two sides together. Later, at the White House, Obama was to follow the same pattern in talks with the two leaders.
Last updated 08/05/2009