UPDATE 1-Pakistani elders vow to protect vital Khyber Pass

Tue Sep 2, 2008 3:48pm IST

(Adds rebels in Baluchistan say suspend attacks)

By Ibrahim Shinwari

LANDIKOTAL, Pakistan, Sept 2 (Reuters) - Ethnic Pashtun tribal elders in Pakistan have promised to ensure security for supplies trucked through the Khyber Pass bound for foreign forces in Afghanistan, a government official said on Tuesday.

The Khyber Pass is a vital artery for supplies for U.S. and other foreign forces in landlocked Afghanistan and militants have been attacking trucks and tankers carrying military equipment and fuel.

According to transport companies, more than 20 trucks hauling containers and a dozen oil-tankers have been attacked in the region since June and some drivers have been kidnapped and killed.

Tahab Khan, a senior government official in the Khyber region, said elders had signed an agreement with authorities on Monday to ensure the safety of supplies.

"They will not only be responsible for security but also take strict action against violators," Khan told Reuters.

Elders traditionally wield power in Pashtun society although militants have killed several hundred of them since Pakistan joined the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism and tried to root out foreign al Qaeda militants and subdue their Pakistani allies.

The Khyber Pass is the one of two land routes for supplies going to Afghanistan from Pakistan and its main port of Karachi. The other border crossing is at the southwestern town of Chaman.

Security forces conducted an offensive in the Khyber region at the end of June to push militants back from the outskirts of the main northwestern city of Peshawar.

Later, the military went on the offensive in two other regions, Bajaur, which is also on the Afghan border to the north of Khyber, and the Swat Valley, in North West Frontier Province.

"ON THE RUN"

The Interior Ministry said this week more than 550 militants out of about 3,000, including foreigners, in Bajaur had been killed in the offensive and a military spokesman said the militants had been pushed out.

"They are on the run, security forces have made substantial gains," said the spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas.

A government official in Khar, the main town in Bajaur, said 10 children and two women were killed on Monday when paramilitary troops fired mortar bombs at militants.

Abbas said the incident was being investigated.

The government has suspended military operations in the northwest for the fasting month of Ramadan, which began on Monday evening, but said its forces would respond if attacked.

The fighting in the northwest has displaced about 250,000 people, most of whom are staying with friends and relatives, but many have started returning home since the government announced it was suspending military operations, government officials said.

In the gas-rich southwestern province of Baluchistan, autonomy-seeking rebels announced they were suspending their attacks to give the government time to address their grievances and stop military operations against them.

Baluch nationalist rebels, who have no links with the Islamist Taliban, have for decades been waging a low-level insurgency for autonomy and a greater share of the revenue from the province's natural resources.

They have regularly attacked gas industry infrastructure, transport links and security posts.

The coalition government led by the party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has pledged to address grievances in Baluchistan, Pakistan's poorest province, and to hold talks with the insurgents. (Additional reporting by Mian Saeed-ur-Rehman in Bajaur and Gul Yousafzai in Quetta; Writing by Kamran Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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