ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan will suspend its military operations against insurgents in a tribal region along the Afghan border in honor of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the country's top civilian security official said Sunday.
But security forces will retaliate with force against any militant attacks during the month, Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said. The suspension is to take effect Monday.
An army spokesman said, however, that it has not yet received formal orders to end their strikes on insurgents in the Bajur tribal area, where hundreds of militants have reportedly died and tens of thousands have been forced to flee.
"Officially, it has not been conveyed as yet, but if the government has ordered a stop to the operation, security forces will act accordingly," Major Murad Khan said.
Pakistan's five-month-old government has been plagued by violence and political instability since Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign as president two weeks ago.
The U.S. has pushed Pakistan to crack down on militants along its border, fearing Taliban- and Al Qaeda-linked fighters there — particularly in the semiautonomous tribal areas — are involved in attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The military operation in Bajur, a rumored hide-out of Usama bin Laden, has killed 562 Islamist insurgents, according to Malik, and forced more than 300,000 people to flee their homes.
The military has used helicopter gunships and fighter jets to support paramilitary forces on the ground there.
Separately, the military has launched strikes against insurgents in the Swat Valley, another northwest region that was once a popular tourist destination. Army spokesman Maj. Nasir Ali said at least 40 Taliban were killed Friday when fighter jets pounded militants in the valley.
Malik said his announcement of the suspension applied only to Bajur because a decision on Swat required notices by the provincial government. Wajid Ali Khan, a top official with the North West Frontier Province, said a decision could come later Sunday.
"The operation in Swat is in high gear, but the holy month's sanctity requires that people spend it in peace and harmony," Khan said, adding, "It shouldn't be a one-way affair."
It has been nearly impossible to confirm the death tolls and the scope of either the Bajur or Swat violence because of the areas' dangerous and remote natures. Officials have not given any statistics on civilian deaths, though witnesses have reported dozens.