MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) - A radical cleric, acting as the Taliban’s go-between in Pakistan’s restive Swat valley, broke off talks with the government on Monday after a military offensive began in a neighboring northwest region.
Pakistan launched an offensive against Taliban fighters in the northwest region of Lower Dir after being attacked by militants.
Surging violence across northwest Pakistan and the spread of Taliban influence have heightened concerns about insecurity in the nuclear-armed country, an important U.S. ally whose help is crucial to defeating al Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan.
Several thousand people began fleeing Lower Dir, residents said, a day after security forces using artillery and helicopter gunships swung into action after the militants’ ambush.
A military spokesman said more than 40 militants had been killed, though independent estimates were unavailable.
Analysts say President Asif Ali Zardari may want to show some steel before talks in Washington with President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai on May 6-7.
Zardari on Monday sought to allay U.S. fears that the Taliban could get their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
“I want to assure the world that the nuclear capability of Pakistan is under safe hands,” he told a panel interview with Reuters and other international media.
Lower Dir and Swat are part of the Malakand division where Zardari reluctantly sanctioned the imposition of Islamic sharia law this month after a peace deal with radical cleric, Sufi Mohammad, aimed at ending militant violence.
Paramilitary officials said Mohammad, who was released from jail last year after renouncing militancy, was unable to leave his home in Lower Dir’s Maidan village due to a curfew.
Mohammad sparked uproar last week by denouncing the parliament, democracy and the Supreme Court as un-Islamic, and a spokesman for the old cleric said there would be no further dialogue with the government until it stopped its operation.
“We are suspending talks with the government until the military operation in Dir is halted,” said Aamir Izat, a spokesman for Mohammad.
Mohammad had been negotiating for a speedier implementation of sharia courts in Swat, while the government wants the Taliban to fulfill its side of the bargain by laying down arms.
A Taliban spokesman in Swat, 125 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, breathed defiance following the operation in Dir.
“The more they carry out operations the more we will expand across Pakistan,” Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said.
Pakistan’s allies want to see coherent, decisive action by Islamabad against militants, rather than policies of appeasement, and many Pakistanis have come round to a similar view.
“The only option is to take action,” said retired brigadier Mehmood Shah, a former chief of security in northwest Pakistan.
Shah expected the operation in Dir to be over soon, but saw chances for a larger offensive in Swat given the Taliban’s recalcitrance.
“If these people do not deliver on their part of the agreement... I think there is no other option with the government,” he said.
Security forces launched the offensive in Lower Dir, about 170 km (104 miles) northwest of the capital Islamabad, after militants attacked a convoy of paramilitary troops and 12 children were killed by a bomb hidden in a football.
Helicopter gunships and artillery targeted militant hideouts in the villages of Lal Qala and Islam Qala, and families poured out of the region, which lies to the west of Swat.
Sporadic artillery fire was heard overnight and on Monday morning and residents saw a helicopter circling the area.
“Search and cordon operations are being carried out to capture or flush out militants,” the military spokesman said.
Alarm bells had rung in Washington last week after Taliban fighters moved into Buner valley, south of Swat and just 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Islamabad.
On Friday, with expectations growing of a military operation, Taliban commander Fazlullah, ordered his men to pull back to Swat, but officials and residents said armed fighters who hailed from Buner were still present.
Reporting by Junaid Khan; Writing by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Valerie Lee