UPDATE 1-Pakistani Taliban vow to strike during Ramadan

Sun Aug 31, 2008 7:46pm IST

(For a look at what may happen next in Pakistani politics, double click on [ID:nISL272165]) (Adds missile strike kills five paragraphs 2-3, 14-17)

By Kamran Haider

ISLAMABAD Aug 31 (Reuters) - Pakistani Taliban will continue attacks during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, rejecting a government announcement it would halt military action in the northwest, a Taliban spokesman said on Sunday.

Violence has surged in Pakistan recently with the military battling al Qaeda- and Taliban-linked fighters in three areas in the northwest, and sporadic missile strikes, attributed to the United States, also aimed at militants.

One of those launched from a suspected U.S. drone hit on Sunday, killing five Uzbek militants and wounding seven of their Pakistani allies, intelligence officials and witnesses said.

Pakistani militants have responded to the military pressure with suicide and remotely detonated bomb attacks on the security forces and civilian targets.

Deteriorating security has coincided with a faltering economy and political upheaval, as the resignation of unpopular President Pervez Musharraf on Aug. 18 was followed a week later by a split in the ruling coalition.

"It's a joke. It isn't a matter of holy or unholy. All months are holy. If they want to end fighting, it should be permanent," Muslim Khan, Taliban spokesman in the Swat Valley, said of the government announcement of the temporary halt in military operations.

"We want enforcement of Sharia laws and will continue our struggle. We haven't got instructions from our top leadership to stop fighting. If they do (order a halt) then we certainly will," he said by telephone.

Pakistan's government said on Saturday security forces would suspend operations from Sunday night for Ramadan, which ends at the beginning of October, but would retaliate if attacked.

Worries about security and politics have unnerved investors who have sent Pakistani financial markets skidding lower. The main share index has fallen about 36 percent this year.

According to government estimates, up to 300,000 people have fled from fierce clashes between security forces and violent militants in the tribal region of Bajaur on the Afghan border.

Many displaced people have moved to temporary shelters set up in various towns outside the region, where despite government and foreign aid agencies' efforts, shortages of food and medical supplies and poor sanitation are common complaints.

U.S. WORRIES

The United States and other allies have been concerned the government led by assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's party might be less committed to the unpopular war against militancy after the resignation of firm ally Musharraf.

Washington says al Qaeda and Taliban militants have been given shelter by Pakistani allies in ethnic Pashtun tribal lands on the Afghan border and from there not only carry out attacks on both sides of the border but plot violence in the West.

Missile strikes like the one on Sunday -- which according to intelligence officials struck a house in North Waziristan near the Afghan border, a known sanctuary for Taliban and al Qaeda militants -- are generally not confirmed or denied by U.S. or allied military officials in Afghanistan.

But intelligence sources say they are typically carried out by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The Sunday incident occurred about 15 km (10 miles) east of Miranshah, the main town of the region. In July a similar strike killed a top al Qaeda official in South Waziristan province.

"We have reports of an explosion, but we don't know the nature of the blast," said Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas regarding the Sunday strike report.

Pakistan's military has been engaged in heavy fighting recently with militants in the Bajaur area on the Afghan border, across mountains to the west of Swat, and in South Waziristan.

In Swat and Bajaur especially, jet fighters and helicopter gunships have been used to strike militant positions. Several hundred people, mostly militants, have been killed in recent clashes, government officials say. (Editing by Jerry Norton and Tim Pearce)

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