US, Pakistan vow to intensify crackdown on militants

Jo Biddle
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US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks during a joint press conference with Pakistan's National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad on January 13, 2015

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks during a joint press conference with Pakistan's National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad on January 13, 2015 (AFP Photo/Aamir Qureshi)

The US and Pakistan vowed Tuesday to intensify a crackdown on militants hiding in lawless border areas, as top diplomat John Kerry urged renewed peace talks with India to strengthen regional stability.

Last month's shocking school massacre in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban triggered global outrage, and sharpened the focus on militant groups hiding in Pakistan's northwestern tribal region.

Islamabad began a full-scale offensive against Taliban and other militants in the North Waziristan tribal district in June, after ignoring US calls for action for years.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Pakistan's national security adviser Sartaj Aziz, Kerry said Pakistan deserved "enormous credit" for the operation.

"I emphasised that the US is committed to deepening our security relationship with Pakistan in order to eliminate threats in the border area and elsewhere," the US Secretary of State told reporters.

Last month's massacre killed 150 people, mostly schoolboys. In response the government announced plans for military courts to hear terror cases and ended a moratorium on the death penalty for convicted militants.

Pakistan executed seven militants on Tuesday, bringing to 16 the number hanged since December.

The attack was "a reminder of the serious risk of allowing extremists to find space, and be able to command that space and operate within it", Kerry said.

Earlier in strategic talks with a top Pakistani official, he said the operation in Waziristan had already led to "significant results".

Kerry later met senior Pakistani military commanders at their headquarters in Rawalpindi to discuss joint military efforts and plans for greater intelligence-sharing.

The US has carried out a series of drone strikes in the tribal regions since Islamabad resumed its own offensive there, raising speculation that the two nations' militaries are working together on Pakistani soil. Pakistani officials however denounce the drone attacks as a violation of sovereignty.

Kerry had planned to visit Peshawar where the massacre took place, but the State Department later issued a statement saying weather concerns forced him to cancel the trip and he later departed for Geneva.

Kerry warned that all terror groups -- such as the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taiba -- "continue to pose a threat not just to Pakistan and its neighbours but also to the United States and the world".

- 'Task is not done' -

"Make no mistake the task is a difficult one and it is not done," Kerry said.

"We all have a responsibility to ensure that these extremists are no longer able to secure a foothold in this country or elsewhere."

Some analysts believe Pakistan's security services see the Haqqanis as an "asset" and maintain close links with them.

But Aziz vowed Tuesday that Pakistan would take action "without discrimination, against all groups" seen as spreading terror both in Pakistan and neighbouring countries, adding that the Haqqani network's infrastructure had been "totally destroyed" by the North Waziristan operation.

Kerry also stressed that Washington had what he called a "uniform concern about the region's stability", urging India and Pakistan to return to peace talks.

"It is profoundly in the interests of Pakistan and India to move their relationship forward," he told reporters.

"This is the hardest kind of work. It means you have to put a lot of time and effort into overcoming historical mistrust and past events, enmities."

Washington would do whatever it could to help, the top US diplomat said, but he stressed it was ultimately up to the two sides to resolve their differences.

India abruptly called off planned peace talks last August after Pakistan consulted Kashmiri separatists before the dialogue began.

Pakistan and India, who have fought two of their three wars over disputed Muslim-majority Kashmir, have traded blame for an upsurge in firing and shelling across the de facto border in Kashmir which started in October.

Recent exchanges of fire across the frontier known as the Line of Control (LoC) have killed more than two dozen civilians and forced thousands to flee their homes on both sides.

The US remains "deeply concerned by the increasing spate of increased violence along the working boundary and the Line of Control", Kerry said.

He meanwhile insisted that the US-Pakistan relationship was not solely based on military and defence interests.

Over the past five years some $7.5 billion had been pumped into Pakistan and "gone towards building roads, dams, bridges, and health clinics in Pakistan -– projects that have improved the daily lives of people", Kerry said.