Fierce fighting between the Pakistani army and Taliban militants pushed a peace deal in a northwestern region close to collapse and drew warnings of more attacks by the insurgents. Washington and other Western nations have criticized the three-month-old deal in the Malakand region, which is close to Afghanistan. They want Pakistan to crackdown on the insurgents, not talk to them, and are unlikely to mourn if the agreement breaks down.
Pakistan's embattled civilian government may find itself with more public support to fight the extremists if the deal ends.
It could argue it has the moral high ground after offering the militants a compromise in good faith, only to see them reject it. The developments come as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and President Barack Obama prepare to meet later this week in Washington for talks on how to sharpen Islamabad's anti-terror fight. Zardari is expected to ask for more money to help his country's battered economy and under-equipped security forces deal with militants. Under the deal, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the districts that make up Malakand in hopes the militants would lay down their arms. But the Taliban in Swat, the movement's stronghold, did not disarm and were emboldened, soon entering the adjacent Buner district to impose their harsh brand of Islam.
The proximity of Buner to the capital of Islamabad raised alarms domestically and abroad. Pakistan's military went on the offensive over the past week to drive the Taliban out. On Monday, security forces killed seven insurgents in an attack on a hide-out there, the military said in a statement, bringing to almost 90 the number of insurgents slain since the operations began. Thousands of civilians have fled the region.
The military has so far not extended its campaign into Swat, saying the deal still held there. But in fresh violence in the former tourist region Monday, militants killed one soldier and wounded two others in an attack on a convoy, the statement said. Later Monday the Taliban struck with a spate of attacks in the troubled valley's main city Mingora, officials said. "The militants have launched fresh attacks. Security forces are exchanging fire with them at various places," Swat's top government official Khushal Khan said.
Militants blew up a police station that had already been vacated by officers in anticipation of an attack, police official Liaqat Khan said.
Another police station was targeted but officers repelled the insurgents, he said. Security forces were also engaged with militants at a military base. No casualty figures were immediately available.
Northwest Frontier Province Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain, who helped negotiate the peace pact and had been one of its strongest defenders, pledged to fight the militants. "We set up Islamic courts, we gave them Islamic judges, yet they do not accept this. They have some other agenda," said Hussain. "We will fight them and, God willing, these handful of miscreants will be defeated and the nation will prevail."
Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan claimed responsibility for the convoy attack saying it was in response to the alleged strengthening of military positions in the region in violation of the peace deal. "Why do you think we should remain silent if they come heavy on us? ... We will attack them too," he told The Associated Press. Mahmood Shah, a former chief of security in Pakistan and now a military analyst, said the deal was all but over. "It is about to die its natural death. The government is left with no option but to use force now. The militants have exposed themselves. They are not interested in peace."