Pakistan sent helicopter gunships and troops to attack Taleban militants in a district covered by a peace deal after strong United States pressure on the nuclear-armed nation to confront insurgents advancing in its northwest.
At least 31 people were killed yesterday in the operation, which sent some residents of Lower Dir district fleeing carrying small children and few belongings.
The push appeared to endanger a peace pact struck with Taleban militants in neighbouring Swat Valley, although a top official insisted the deal was “intact”. Another official demanded the insurgents disarm, but a Taleban spokesman said the militants would not give up their weapons.
The Lower Dir offensive also came ahead of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s scheduled meeting with President Barack Obama in early May, but Pakistani officials denied outside pressure influenced the move.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected in Islamabad today for talks with Pakistani leaders.
Television footage from the district showed at least two helicopter gunships heading toward the mountains. Troops guarded a road blocked with paramilitary trucks, while some families sat nearby.
The operation killed at least 30 militants, including a commander, plus one paramilitary soldier, according to an Army statement.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the provincial Information Minister, said the troops were targeting militants suspected of killing a local mayor and several police officers.
The Government agreed to impose Islamic law in Swat and surrounding districts that make up Malakand Division if the Taleban there would end their violent campaign in the one-time tourist haven. Critics labelled the deal a “surrender” to the militants and warned Swat was turning into a haven for allies of al Qaeda.
In recent days, Taleban forces from Swat began entering Buner, a neighbouring district which lies just 100km from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Officials said most of the insurgents pulled out of Buner on Friday amid reports of possible military action, and threats that the Government would scrap the deal.
Losing either Lower or Upper Dir to militants would be a blow not only for Pakistan but also for the US because a part of the region borders Afghanistan, where the US is sending thousands more troops to shore up the faltering war effort against a resurgent Taleban.
Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for President Zardari, insisted the operation did not render the peace agreement moot. He said the Government would fulfil its pledge to establish an Islamic judicial system in Malakand, a long-standing demand of local residents exhausted by the inefficient regular courts – and a grievance exploited by the Taleban.
The peace deal is intact,” Babar said. “At the same time the Government is determined to root out the militants hell-bent on destroying the law and order situation.”
However, Rehman Malik, the head of the Interior Ministry, spoke of the deal in past tense when saying the Swat militants had to disarm.
“Enough is enough,” Malik said. “There is no option for them except to lay down their arms, because the Government is serious to flush them out.”
Taleban spokesman Muslim Khan said the militants, “do not lay down weapons. Instead they snatch them.” He said the Taleban were still trying to abide by the deal but wanted to make sure the newly created Islamic courts had full authority.
Amir Izzat, a spokesman for the hard-line cleric who mediated the deal, said the “operation is a clear violation” of the agreement and warned that the Government would be responsible for the fallout.
A similar peace deal attempted in Swat last year fell apart within a few months, and officials said it gave the militants there a chance to regroup and rearm, making them a more challenging enemy when the Army resumed its fight in the valley.
Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan’s tribal regions, said the Army operation in Dir was a clear signal to the Swat Taleban that they must stop entering neighbouring districts.