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Pakistani forces patrol empty bazaar, arrest militants in bloodless military operation
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    BARA, Pakistan — Heavily armed paramilitary troops blocked roads into a tribal town in northwestern Pakistan and patrolled its deserted bazaar Wednesday as an operation against Islamic militants rolled into its fifth day with more arrests but no sign of fighting.
    Troops arrested 10 suspected supporters of a local militant chief, Mangal Bagh, and confiscated submachine guns, rifles and ammunition from their pickup truck, about three miles from Bara, the focus of the operation in Khyber tribal region.
    The blindfolded captives were displayed to reporters who visited a Frontier Corps base, which had about a dozen tanks, several armored personal carriers and artillery guns inside.
    A senior officer, who sought anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the men were detained as they attempted to transport the weapons in the remote Tirah Valley.
    Rival militant groups Ansar ul-Islam and Bagh’s Lashkar-e-Islam — which have gained sway in Khyber in recent months — have fought with each other in the valley this week, even as Pakistan launched the military operation in the more accessible area around Bara.
    The aim of the operation is to protect nearby Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province. The main road through Khyber is also a key supply line for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
    The offensive comes amid growing concern that Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in its war on terror, is losing control of its volatile northwest, making it easier for Taliban and al-Qaida militants to launch cross-border attacks. Local militants are also accused of setting up a parallel justice system.
    In Islamabad, visiting Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said the operation outside Peshawar was ‘‘very welcome.’’
    ‘‘But it’s a reminder of how much of a problem there is up in that part of the country,’’ he said at a news conference, adding that security in the area appeared to have deteriorated in the past two years.
    In an interview with Bagh aired Wednesday by a Pakistani TV network and conducted at an undisclosed location, the militant chief denied he had plans to capture Peshawar or had ever fought against the government.
    Bagh, sporting a thick black beard and long curly hair, told Geo TV his Lashkar-e-Islam organization has ‘‘rendered’’ sacrifices over the past three years to rid the area of criminals.
    Since the military operation began Saturday, authorities say forces have destroyed several militant centers, including a radio station, and recovered some men kidnapped by militants and criminals for ransom. But only one militant has been reported killed in fighting.
    In Bara town on Wednesday, the bazaar — usually bustling with traders selling cloth, electronics, foodstuffs and even hashish — was empty. Frontier Corps troops sat atop shop roofs with machine guns.
    About 80 local people were blocked at a checkpoint into the town, as the security forces tightened their control of access into the area. A round-the-clock curfew is in force and about 20 people were arrested Wednesday for violating it, a local administrator said, requesting anonymity as he was not meant to speak to journalists.
    According to a recent order issued by a magistrate, security forces have the right to shoot curfew violators on sight.
    Baghi Shah, 73, a retired civil servant, waiting at the checkpoint, said he had walked five miles from his village to get spare parts for a water pump and had been waiting for two hours to be allowed back through — without luck.
    ‘‘My family has no water. I need to go home, but they won’t let me inside,’’ he said, scratching his gray beard.
    Although Pakistan has previously launched operations against militants in the troubled North and South Waziristan tribal areas, the offensive in Khyber is the first since parties opposed to President Pervez Musharraf came to power after February elections.
    The new government has sought to reduce violence through peace deals with militants. But Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud has vowed revenge over the offensive, although there is no sign that the offensive will be widened to tackle his strongholds in Waziristan.
    Boucher said the U.S. supports Pakistan’s negotiations with tribes in the areas but does not support ‘‘making concessions to the violent leaders like Baitullah Mehsud.’’
    Associated Press writer Nahal Toosi in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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