PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Fighting raged yesterday in a scenic valley in Pakistan's troubled northwest, killing at least 17 civilians, including seven members of a family whose home was hit by a mortar shell, local officials said.
The violence that broke out Tuesday has been the worst in months in the Swat Valley, which is about 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad. In recent days, militants seeking to impose a Taliban-style social code have been burning girls' schools, attacking police posts and abducting paramilitary troops.
The confrontation in Swat is a test of the four-month-old coalition government's effort to combine the threat of force with peace negotiations. In May, Pakistani authorities reached a truce with local Taliban fighters, and provincial officials said yesterday that they still hoped to salvage that accord.
The United States and its NATO allies have expressed strong concern about Pakistan's policy of making deals with the militants, saying it has given the insurgents greater freedom to cross the frontier and stage attacks against Western troops in Afghanistan.
To Pakistanis, the confrontation in Swat is alarming because it lies outside the semi-autonomous tribal areas, in an area where the government, in theory at least, wields authority. Swat's alpine resorts, mountain lakes and pine forests used to draw tens of thousands of tourists each year.
The Pakistani army claimed to have killed dozens of militants in Swat since Tuesday, but a spokesman for the insurgents put the number of dead fighters in single digits.
As in the past, the army sought to subdue the militants by raking the area with fire from helicopter gunships and shelling suspected insurgent positions, a tactic that local officials say is putting civilians in grave danger.
The seven-member family, including women and children, was killed before dawn yesterday in the village of Deolai, police said. Nearly three dozen other civilians were reported hurt, including a about 25 workers who harvesting peaches in an orchard, according to local residents.
The military placed the entire valley under curfew Wednesday, but lifted it briefly yesterday to allow people to go out to buy food. Residents reached by telephone said the militants had blown up key bridges, preventing them from fleeing.
Militants loyal to Mullah Fazlullah, a Taliban-linked commander who used a pirate FM radio station to spread his message, seized control of much of the valley last year. The Pakistani army eventually moved in, driving the insurgents out of villages and into the mountains. But the fighters have since filtered back.
The main army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said that the government of the North West Frontier province had asked the army to send in more troops and that the request was being considered. Officials have declined to say how many troops are taking part in the current fighting.
The escalating conflict in Swat may make it extremely difficult for the army to keep a pledge made to U.S. officials this month to deploy more troops along the frontier to stem infiltration into Afghanistan.
In another worrisome sign of deteriorating security along the border with Afghanistan, Pakistani paramilitary troops were reported to be pulling out of the Ladha Fort in the tribal area of South Waziristan.
The fort has been repeatedly attacked by militants.
Maj. Gen. Alam Khattak, the Frontier Corps commander in the area, told the Associated Press that the troops were leaving at the request of tribal elders. Those elders helped broker a peace deal with Baitullah Mehsud, who is based in South Waziristan and is the commander of an umbrella group of Pakistani Taliban.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.