INTERVIEW - Pakistan still considering Waziristan options

LONDON Mon Sep 28, 2009 7:54am IST

Pakistan's Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik speaks during a news conference in Islamabad March 9, 2009. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood/Files

Pakistan's Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik speaks during a news conference in Islamabad March 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood/Files

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LONDON (Reuters) - Pakistan has yet to decide whether it should launch a full-scale military operation in the Waziristan tribal areas to tackle Pakistani Taliban militants, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Sunday.

But he told Reuters in an interview in London Pakistan would take whatever action was needed to flush out the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) -- who he described as "the front face of al Qaeda" -- from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The army, which drove out the Pakistani Taliban from the Swat valley northwest of Islamabad earlier this year, has been reluctant to send ground troops into the militants' stronghold in South Waziristan, relying instead on air strikes.

But it is expected to come under fresh pressure to launch a ground offensive after two bomb attacks on Saturday raised fears the Pakistani Taliban were recovering from the death of their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a U.S. missile strike in August.

"We are very much doing our targeted action on Baitullah Mehsud's group," Malik said.

"Whether we really need a real good big operation like Swat in North Waziristan, in South Waziristan, we are considering it and at the appropriate time we are going to take action."

He said he was confident Pakistan had broken the back of the Pakistani Taliban but that bomb attacks were likely to continue until the militants in the tribal areas were dealt with.

"Let's not forget, it's not only the TTP which is operating there. There is also al Qaeda and proscribed organisations," he said. "We have broken the back of the Taliban but what about the main handler which is al Qaeda?"

Analysts say any ground offensive into Waziristan would likely cause heavy army casualties since it is much larger than Swat and more inaccessible. The army may also be running out of time before the winter snows make an offensive extremely hard.

QUETTA SHURA "DOES NOT EXIST"

Many analysts say Pakistan is acting only against militants which became a threat to itself, like the Pakistani Taliban, while leaving alone those focused on fighting in Afghanistan or on targetting India.

But Malik rejected U.S. complaints the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar were operating from the town of Quetta in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, in the so-called "Quetta shura".

"Over and again this topic has been coming up. But Quetta shura according to us does not exist in Quetta," he said.

"What we are requesting to the U.S. and U.K. and all other stakeholders, please give us real-time information. If you know that they are present you must be knowing their names, details ... if there is any sign of Quetta shura, we will smash it."

He also said Hafez Saeed, the founder of the Punjab-based Laskhar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for last year's attack on Mumbai, would be arrested if there were evidence against him.

India believes Saeed masterminded the assault on its financial capital and has been incensed by what it sees as Pakistan's failure to act more quickly against him and other militants based in Pakistan's heartland Punjab province.

"I assure you that we are on it, and also Hafez Saeed has been included in the investigation of the Mumbai attack," Malik said. "He has already been interrogated. Yes, been interrogated. He is now being investigated."

But he said Pakistan needed evidence that would stand up in court, and said India had been slow in handing over information, including what he said was a four-month delay in providing the confession of the lone surviving gunman from the Mumbai attack.

Pakistan has already put seven men on trial over the Mumbai attacks and Malik said he was confident they would be convicted.

India has refused to resume a formal peace process with Pakistan until it takes more action to stop Pakistan-based militants from launching attacks on India and in Indian Kashmir.

The foreign ministers of the two countries held talks on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sunday but stopped short of announcing a resumption of peace negotiations.

(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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