Pakistani Military Launches Strikes

The Pakistani military launched a series of strikes against a pro-Taliban stronghold in a tribal region on its border with Afghanistan. One of the key targets is a Taliban leader who the Pakistani government says masterminded last month's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. This weekend, Pakistani authorities made the first significant arrests for the murder of Bhutto.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go next to Pakistan, where the military yesterday launched strikes against a pro-Taliban stronghold. These strikes came in a tribal region close to the border with Afghanistan, and the target is the man the Pakistan government says masterminded last month's assassination of the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. That's what the government says. The authorities also say they've made the first significant arrests connected to Bhutto's assassination.

NPR's Jackie Northam is covering this story from Islamabad. And what can you tell us about the arrests?

JACKIE NORTHAM: Well, Pakistani authorities say one of those arrested is a 15-year-old boy, and the police say he confessed to being part of the plot to kill Bhutto on December 27th, and that his role was as a backup. So if the first shooter or suicide bomber failed to kill Bhutto, then this teenager was to move in. Another man was also arrested, and police say he's considered to be the boy's handler. And the authorities here regard this older man as a more important catch, because they figured that he might have a better sense of the network with a conspiracy to kill Bhutto, whereas the 15-year-old would just implemented the plans. And police say both of these men arrested have links to a Taliban leader named Baitullah Mehsud who is considered by Pakistan authorities and the CIA to be behind Bhutto's death.

INSKEEP: So progress in the investigation, according to the government, what the supporters of Benazir Bhutto think?

NORTHAM: They're not satisfied with this answer at all. In fact, you know, many people in Pakistan still see the hand of the intelligence service here known as the ISI as having something to do with Bhutto's death, primarily because the ISI pervasive. It's in every aspect of Pakistani society.

But right from the beginning, the government has blamed Baitullah Mehsud, and he's denied it on several occasions, just any involvement with Bhutto's assassination.

INSKEEP: Baitullah Mehsud, that is the militant in the mountains whose stronghold was attacked over the weekend, right?

NORTHAM: That's right. There's actually been very intense fighting up in that area from all reports. You know, this is an extremely remote tribal region, so it's very difficult to get precise or accurate details. But, you know, from all accounts that we can get, this fighting has been ferocious. The military has been shelling positions held by militants who are loyal to Baitullah Mehsud. And the military said it's captured 40 militants and killed about a hundred. But at the same time, several days ago, Mehsud loyalists overran a key fort up there, killed at least eight soldiers.

So, you know, these kind of attacks, Steve, are real challenge for Pakistan's military. You know, trying to deal with pro-Taliban militants that have increased in numbers and strength over the past few months. And more worryingly, they're making en routes from the tribal regions into towns and villages.

INSKEEP: This must also be a challenge for the United States?

NORTHAM: Oh, absolutely. You know, because a destabilized Pakistan could really have an impact on U.S. efforts in neighboring Afghanistan. You know, this is why in part, there's more talk now that the U.S. would like to expand its military assistance to Pakistan, to train and advise Pakistan's military. But it's unclear if there would be a greater role. For example, whether there would be more special operation forces based here or a broader CIA presence. But, you know, there's been several senior U.S. Military officers visiting Pakistan since Bhutto's death, and this week Navy Admiral William Fallon, the head of U.S. Central Command, is due to arrive here as well.

So, you know, the problem is there's a really - a very strong anti-American sentiment already here in Pakistan, and it's unlikely a larger U.S. presence would be welcomed by very many.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Jackie Northam in Pakistan where the government says it has made progress in its investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you very much, Steve.

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