KATHY GANNON / AP | June 28, 2008

SHAHKAS, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani forces bombarded suspected militant hideouts with mortar shells Saturday as the government launched a major offensive against Taliban fighters threatening the main city in the country’s volatile northwest, officials said.

The offensive in the Khyber tribal region marked the first major military action Pakistan’s newly elected government has taken against the militants operating in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

The government had said it preferred to try to defuse tension with the groups through negotiations, but with threats by Islamic militants to the city of Peshawar growing in recent weeks, the military decided to take action. Khyber also is a key route for moving U.S. military supplies into neighboring Afghanistan.

By Saturday afternoon, the paramilitary Frontier Corps. began shelling suspected militant hideouts in the mountains in Khyber, said local official Muhammad Siddiq Khan.

A round-the-clock curfew was imposed in the Bara area bordering Peshawar, and heavy contingents of troops blocked the main road into Khyber, said Mujeeb Khan, a senior local official.

“All bazaars are shut and residents have been asked not to come out of their homes,” he said.

Tauseef Haider, a top official with the Frontier Constabulary, said his forces had brought in reinforcements and heavy weapons to protect Peshawar and its more than 1 million residents from insurgents who might try a counterattack.

“Since the operation is going on in the tribal area, that is why we have to be extra cautious,” he said from the constabulary’s brick outpost in Shahkas, on the edge of the tribal area just outside of Peshawar. “We have increased our strength we will not let any militant come this way.”

Across from the outpost was an expanse of flatland covered in bushes and foliage in front of undulating hills that turned into mountains.

In a sign of expected resistance, a Taliban-linked group said an offensive in the area will only create more problems.


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