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Pakistani Police charge cleric’s followers with terrorism 200,000 civilians flee Pakistan offensive

BANNU, Pakistan, June 20, (AFP): Pakistani helicopter gunships pounded militant targets in the country’s northwest Friday, killing up to 20 rebels, as the number of civilians fleeing an expected ground offensive passed 200,000. Nearly 150,000 people have left North Waziristan tribal area, on the Afghan border, this week after the military launched a long-awaited assault against Taliban hideouts.

The authorities eased a shoot-on-sight curfew on Wednesday to give civilians a chance to leave before troops begin a full-blooded ground operation. A senior security official told AFP that helicopter gunships targeted militant hideouts in an early morning raid in Kutabkhel area of Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan, killing up to 20 militants.

A local intelligence official also confirmed the attack and casualties. Nearly 250 insurgents have been killed since the start of the operation on Sunday, according to security officials, though it is not possible to confirm the number or identity of those killed. The military offensive began after a bloody and dramatic attack on Karachi airport last week brought an end to months of largely fruitless government efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Washington has long demanded action against militant hideouts in North Waziristan, which has served as a rear base for insurgents battling US-led forces in Afghanistan, but Pakistan resisted.

The area, one of seven semi-autonomous tribal regions on the Afghan border, has been an important base for the TTP, which has killed thousands in bombings and gun attacks during its seven-year insurgency.

Meanwhile, Pakistani police said Thursday they had filed terrorism charges against followers of a prominent preacher and anti-government critic, including his son, following clashes with the group in the eastern city of Lahore. Eight people were killed when Pakistani riot police armed with assault rifles clashed with supporters of cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, who lives in Canada but is due to come to Pakistan by the end of the month. “There is one case against 54 (named individuals) including Doctor Tahir-ul-Qadri’s son Doctor Hassan Mohiuddin and 3,000 unknown people under the charges of terrorism, murder, riots and attack on police,” Zulfiqar Cheema, senior police official told AFP. Police said the clashes began when they went to remove what they called illegal security barricades from the offices of Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), meaning “Pakistan People’s Movement”, in the city’s Model Town suburb on Monday night. The violence came as Pakistan’s military is engaged in a major offensive against Taliban militants in the restive northwest, and could put political pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government at a delicate moment

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