Pakistani army expands offensive against Taliban challengers

MINGORA, Pakistan — Pakistan's security forces expanded their military offensive into a second district Tuesday in the country's extremist-plagued North West Frontier Province, leaving Pakistan's controversial peace accord with the Taliban hanging by a thread.

The paramilitary Frontier Corps attacked Pakistani Taliban fighters in Buner, a district just 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad. The move followed an operation launched Sunday against militants in Dir, which the military declared largely over on Tuesday. The army acknowledged that 10 of its troops were killed but said that government forces had killed 70 to 75 insurgents.

Dir and Buner lie on either side of Swat, the Taliban's stronghold in Pakistani territory, where Islamabad agreed to impose Islamic law earlier this month in return for peace.

That peace deal now is under intense strain. Swat militants broke off talks when the army launched the operation in Dir, and should the agreement collapse, an all-out clash between the militants and the army in Swat will be hard to avoid.

So far, the Taliban have shown unusual restraint to prevent the fighting from extending to this vast valley, which is home to some 2 million people, while the authorities also clung to the deal that's stopped the killings there.

The Pakistani government and army were criticized widely at home and abroad for agreeing earlier this month to impose Shariah in Swat and then standing by while the Taliban attempted to annex Buner, pushing into that district about three weeks ago. The extremists' presence in Buner raised concerns about the security of Islamabad and led Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to criticize Pakistan last week for "abdicating to the Taliban."

Pakistan's government and army talked tough Tuesday, indicating that their patience may have snapped. Under the peace accord, the Taliban had agreed not to expand their presence to the areas adjacent to Swat.

"This is the last appeal to the militants, including the militants in Swat who think they are bigger than the state," said Rehman Malik, the interior minister. "Leave the arms, join the mainstream, work for Pakistan, not the enemies of Pakistan.

"Wherever we need to go to establish our writ, we will go."

The Taliban took over Swat starting in late 2007, and two subsequent military campaigns failed to dislodge them. Critics charged that the Taliban took over Buner earlier this month without firing a shot. In moving into Buner, the army said it had no plans to proceed to Swat.

"The overall objectives of the operation are to eliminate and eject the militants from Buner," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief army spokesman. "The operation will restrict itself to Buner, because basically the violation (of the peace deal) was in Buner."

Abbas said that some 450 to 500 Taliban were holed up in Buner, having staged a phony withdrawal last week. He estimated that it would take no more than a week to flush them out.

The action comes on the eve of a visit to Washington next week by President Asif Ali Zardari, part of a 10-day international tour that will include Dubai, Libya and Britain. Zardari is expected to spell out his counterinsurgency plan while he's in the U.S., a strategy that would've appeared hollow with the Taliban rampaging unchallenged in Pakistan.

The United States immediately welcomed the Buner offensive, while leaders in Congress said they were considering sanctioning emergency aid to Pakistan.

"This is something that's in the interest of the government of Pakistan," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Tuesday. "These Taliban and other extremists have posed an existential threat to Pakistan. They've also caused problems for the government of Afghanistan."

The situation in Swat is tense, with residents fearing that the Dir and Buner operations will revive the bloodshed that the peace deal ended. As the Taliban moved across Swat in an 18-month reign of terror, they carried out beheadings, seized property and blew up nearly 200 schools, mostly for girls. The clumsy military response led to many civilian casualties in the relatively densely populated district.

While extremists long have controlled Pakistan's wild tribal border area with Afghanistan, their presence in Swat, some 100 miles from Islamabad, brings them into the heart of Pakistan.

"Those who sit in air-conditioned offices and want an (military) operation here should come and see conditions for themselves. People in Peshawar, Islamabad and America don't know what it's like here," said Fazlullah Khan, a lawyer and activist in Mingora, the main town in Swat. "If the army shows its strength, the Taliban shows its strength, the ones who will die are ordinary people."

Militants sent letters Tuesday to local journalists in Swat, warning them, "Do not write against the Taliban and do not tell lies about us." Placards with the same admonition were posted around Mingora.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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