Pakistan army to launch big push in militant valley

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RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Nov 17 (Reuters) Pakistan's army will soon launch a big operation in a northwestern valley to clear out militants who have infiltrated from Afghan border strongholds, a commander said today.

Army chief and president Pervez Musharraf, struggling to secure another term in office in the face of widespread opposition, cited rising militant violence as one of the factors behind his decision to impose emergency rule on Nov 3.

The political turmoil has raised fears about stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and about the focus of the important US ally on battling militants.

The head of the military operations, Major-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, said the army was about to launch a major operation to clear hundreds of militants out of the Swat Valley in North West Frontier Province.

''The concept is to clear the Swat Valley as soon as possible and to eliminate as many (militants) as possible,'' he told reporters at army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

The scenic mountain valley with trout streams and the country's only ski resort had until recently been a tourist destination.

But Pasha said up to 500 well-armed militants, led by a hard core of 40 to 50, including Uzbek fighters, had infiltrated from the Waziristan border region and from Afghanistan, in support of a radical cleric, Fazlullah.

The police had failed to stop the militant build-up in the valley 120 km northwest of the capital, Islamabad, Pasha said. He also blamed ''political neglect''.

''OVER BY END OF DECEMBER'' Pasha said during heavy fighting this week -- in which the army said about 100 militants were killed in attacks by helicopter gunships and artillery -- the army had been ''shaping the environment'', blocking a militant escape route.

About 15,000 soldiers would take part in the offensive which would involve what he described as surgical attacks to avoid civilian casualties.

He said he hoped the valley would be cleared and open to the public by the end of December.

Security forces have been battling militants along the Afghan border, especially in the remote North and South Waziristan regions, in recent years and hundreds of soldiers and militants have been killed.

But the militant infiltration into the Swat valley has raised fears of the insurgency spreading into so-called settled areas.

Violence, including a wave of suicide attacks, has escalated since July, when the army raided a mosque complex in the capital, Islamabad, where militants linked to Waziristan and Swat had set up a stronghold well stocked with arms and ammunition.

Some analysts have said morale in the army, trained to face external aggressors, was suffering because of the focus on fighting within the country.

Many Pakistanis question Musharraf's close alliance with the United States and see operations against militants in the northwest as merely doing America's bidding.

Pasha denied that morale was low but said internal-security operations raised particular problems.

''It is not easy ... your own people trying to get you,'' he said.

REUTERS PD RN1655

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