May 11 (Bloomberg) — Pakistan’s Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani said the army will defeat Taliban militants after his government disclosed that troops backed by helicopter gun ships in the northwest killed more than 700 guerillas in the past two weeks.
“We were left with no option but to start the operation because the very existence of the country was at stake,” Gilani told lawmakers in the capital, Islamabad, today. “No matter how strong these terrorists are, they cannot stand up to the army.”
About 700 militants were killed and 20 soldiers died in the last two weeks, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters in Islamabad today. The operation against militants is “making headway successfully” as 52 Taliban gunmen were killed in the last 24 hours, the army said in a statement from Rawalpindi today. Casualty figures couldn’t be independently verified.
President Asif Ali Zardari, pressed by the U.S., has deployed thousands of soldiers in the northwestern region after the Taliban took advantage of a February peace accord that introduced Islamic law in Swat valley and neighboring districts and advanced closer to the capital. President Barack Obama has said an aid package to Pakistan worth $1.5 billion a year would be conditional on the government tackling extremists.
The military operation “will continue till the last militant is flushed out of the area,” Malik said. “Militants are on the run.”
More than two-thirds of Pakistanis see religious extremism as a “serious problem” in the country, according to a poll released today by the Washington-based International Republican Institute. The organization polled 3,500 adult men and women in rural and urban areas of Pakistan’s four provinces in March.
Support for Army
A record 45 percent of Pakistanis said they support the army in its fight against militants in the northwest region, according to the poll.
Pakistanis do not “approve” of the elements who forced people to flee their homes in the northwest, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif told reporters today during a visit to refugee camps near Mardan, in the North West Frontier Province.
Sharif, who has been Pakistan’s prime minister twice in the 1990s, “is the most popular personality,” according to the IRI survey. Fifty-five percent of respondents said Sharif was the best person to solve the problems of Pakistan, up from 31 percent in the last poll. Seventy-one percent preferred Sharif as the president, compared to 16 percent supporting Zardari.
Zardari has called for unconditional U.S. aid to combat Taliban guerillas. At least 10 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack today in Darra Adamkhel, a tribal area near the border with Afghanistan, GEO television reported.
“We have the will, but we don’t have the capacity,” Malik said upon his return from last week’s trip to the U.S. with Zardari. “We hope the international community will come forward and help us” to fight the militants, who have modern weapons.
Forces have secured strategic peaks and ridges since the military action began on April 26 to wrest control of the Swat, Buner and Dir districts from insurgents, the military said in a statement yesterday. As many as 200 militants were killed in fighting over the weekend, it said.
“We need, in fact, much more help,” Zardari said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “Altogether this aid package is not even one-tenth of what you give AIG,” he added, referring to New York-based American International Group Inc., the insurer bailed out four times by the U.S. government.
The House version of the legislation would impose conditions on Pakistan such as proof of “substantial progress” on strengthening democracy and fighting the Taliban before more than half the money is spent.
Forces in Swat
Zardari said Pakistan has 135,000 military personnel on the ground battling the Taliban in the western part of the country.
Pakistani troops intensified their operations in Swat last week after Gilani ordered an “all-out assault” on an estimated 4,000 Taliban guerrillas. During an almost two-year campaign to bring the area under Islamic law, the Taliban beheaded local officials, burned schools and banned education for girls.
The government agreed to appoint Islamic judges under the peace agreement. Instead of laying down their arms, militants advanced to within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of Islamabad and are demanding the right to choose their own justices.
As many as 200,000 people have fled the conflict in the Swat, Lower Dir and Buner districts in the past few days and another 300,000 are on the move or about to leave, the UN refugee agency said last week.
“Our main worry is providing facilities to the refugees,” Interior Minister Malik said today. About a quarter of a million refugees in temporary camps need help, he said.