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Page last updated at 11:41 GMT, Monday, 1 September 2008 12:41 UK

Army suspends operation in Bajaur

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Pakistan's military has suspended its operations against Taleban militants in the Bajaur tribal area, in the north-west of the country.

The government said this suspension of fighting was in honour of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Taleban spokesman Maulvi Omar welcomed the announcement, but he said militants would not lay down their arms.

Officials say 560 militants have died in the campaign but that 300,000 people have been displaced in three weeks.

The halt in hostilities would allow the displaced to return home, they said.

The military launched the operation in Bajaur after several major attacks by Taleban fighters, ending several months of peace talks.

'Full force'

Pakistan said it would stop the ongoing military operation against militants in Bajaur during the fasting month of Ramadan, but "if the militants fire one bullet at us, we will fire 10 at them", Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said.

An army spokesman said the operation had been suspended from Sunday evening onwards.

But "any offensive from militants during this period will be responded with full force", he said.

As a reciprocal gesture, militants freed six Pakistani soldiers and pledged not to attack others in a "goodwill gesture".

"We have released them respecting the holy month of Ramadan and welcome a ceasefire offer by the government during the fasting month," Maulvi Omar, the spokesman for the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan, was quoted by news agency AFP as saying.

'Biggest displacement'

Government officials, however, emphasise this is a suspension of the military operation, not a ceasefire.

With 300,000 people displaced, observers say the military campaign has led to the biggest displacement in Pakistan's history.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Islamabad says the tribesmen blame the army and the government for their suffering.

But, our correspondent says, some have also begun to turn against the Taleban. In one part of Bajaur, tribal elders formed a militia that attacked militant strongholds and destroyed some of their houses.

It is not clear whether this type of local resistance could spread, or whether it will be weakened by the army's pull back.

Nor is it clear what the suspension of the military operation says about the government's counter-insurgency policy.

Our correspondent says some observers believe it fits into a consistent pattern, where the army first takes the offensive, then calls a ceasefire that allows the militants to regroup.

Others believe it has more to do with the forthcoming presidential election - that it is a calculated move to get Islamist and tribal members of parliament to back the candidate of the governing party, Asif Ali Zardari.

If so, the government may go back on the offensive after the election, sticking to the more hardline approach it has adopted in recent weeks, she says.




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