PESHAWAR, Pakistan – At least 30 Pakistani soldiers and nearly 100 militants have been killed in fierce fighting in a remote, northwest valley over the past four days following a ground offensive launched by the army, military officials said Monday.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's top court ordered former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf to respond to allegations that he committed treason while in power and barred him from leaving the country only weeks after he returned.
The army launched the offensive against the Pakistani Taliban and their allies in the Tirah Valley on Friday after weeks of fighting between rival militant groups forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee the rugged, mountainous area.
The valley is located in Khyber, part of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal region, the main sanctuary for Taliban militants in the country. The army has launched scores of operations against the Taliban in the tribal region in recent years, but certain areas like the Tirah Valley have remained outside their control.
The Taliban have remained a serious threat and continue to launch attacks throughout the northwest and other parts of the country with frightening regularity. There is concern that the militants could step up the pace of attacks even more in coming weeks in an attempt to derail parliamentary elections scheduled for May 11.
The fighting in Tirah over the past four days has killed 30 soldiers and 97 militants, military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. The air force has also conducted heavy bombing during the offensive, they said.
The officials claimed that the army has successfully seized control of a large portion of the valley from the Pakistani Taliban and their ally, Lashkar-e-Islam. The claims could not be independently verified.
In recent weeks, the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Islam have been fighting against another militant group, Ansar-e-Islam, which is allied with pro-government tribesmen.
Over 40,000 people have been displaced from the valley since mid-March, according to a recent report by the U.N.'s humanitarian arm. Many of the displaced have sought refuge in the city of Peshawar and other parts of northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Many are in need of food, shelter, health care and clean water, said the U.N.
The Taliban have threatened to kill Musharraf, Pakistan's former military ruler, who returned last month after more than four years in self-imposed exile to run in the upcoming parliamentary election.
He has had a bumpy return, and the Supreme Court's order on Monday was in response to private petitions alleging Musharraf committed various treasonable offenses while in office, including toppling an elected government, suspending the constitution and sacking senior judges, including the chief justice.
If convicted of treason, Musharraf could be sentenced to death. The hearing where he must respond to the allegations is scheduled for Tuesday. Musharraf could appear in person, or send a lawyer.
"People want justice, rule of law and implementation of the constitution," one of the petitioners, lawyer Chaudhry Akram, told two Supreme Court judges overseeing Monday's hearing.
Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999 but was forced to step down almost a decade later under the threat of impeachment by Pakistan's main political parties. He left in 2008 and returned to the country on March 24 of this year.
He was only met by a couple thousand people at the airport in the southern city of Karachi when his flight touched down from Dubai, a sign of how little support many analysts say he enjoys in Pakistan. He faces a series of legal charges that he has denied, including some related to the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
However, he registered a victory on Sunday when he was given approval to run for parliament from a remote district in northern Pakistan.
Judges rejected his nomination in several other districts, and lawyers have said they plan to go to a high court to challenge his right to run. Pakistan's political system allows a candidate to run for several seats simultaneously.
Musharraf's ability to run also could be complicated by the treason allegations against him, though it remains to be seen whether he will actually be charged and convicted. According to the law, only an official of the federal government could register a case against Musharraf for treason.
One of the petitioners, lawyer Sheikh Ahsanuddin, demanded that Musharraf be charged with treason, saying civilian leaders in Pakistan have been executed and sent into exile, but "nothing has happened to the dictators."
"If a precedent is set, a lot of the problems of this country would be solved," Ahsanuddin told the court.
One of Musharraf's aides, Saima Ali Dada, declined to say whether the former leader would appear in person before the judges or send a lawyer, citing security reasons.
The judges reaffirmed that Musharraf should be prevented from leaving the country while legal proceedings involving him are under way. The high court in southern Sindh province earlier ordered that the former military ruler be placed on an exit-control list to prevent him from leaving.
Even if Musharraf is allowed to run in the upcoming election, the impact of his party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, is expected to be minimal because of the perceived lack of support for the former military strongman.
The upcoming vote is historic because it will mark the first transition between democratically elected governments in a country that has experienced three coups and frequent political instability.