Taliban Holds Two Northwestern Pakistan Districts, Moves Within 60 Miles Of Capital

April 24, 2009|By Pamela Constable | Pamela Constable,The Washington Post

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -Taliban forces consolidated control of two northwestern Pakistan districts and sent patrols into a third Thursday, stepping up their defiance of a government peace deal and raising fears of further advances by violent Islamists who have now come within 60 miles of this capital city.

Officials reacted with only mild concern, saying the Taliban should comply with their pledge to lay down arms but the peace deal should be given a chance. The national security adviser, Rehman Malik, said security had actually "improved" in the past two weeks but force would be "the only option" if the militants do not halt violence.

The new Taliban push comes amid increasing criticism of the Pakistani government for its confused, ineffective attempts to contain Islamist violence. Faced with a surge in suicide bombings and attacks across the country, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari has alternately tried to fight and appease the militants.

Just over a year after democratic elections that swept secular, pro-democracy parties into power nationally and in the northwest, Zardari and his allies have endorsed a peace deal that allows the Taliban to impose strict Sharia law on the Swat Valley in exchange for laying down their weapons.

"The Pakistani government is fiddling as the Northwest Frontier Province burns," Pakistani representatives of the human rights group Amnesty International said Thursday in a statement. The organization said hundreds of thousands of Pakistani civilians are "now at the mercy of abusive and repressive Taliban groups" and the government has given no indication of how it intends to protect citizens.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that Zardari's government was "abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists." However, in congressional testimony Thursday, she said that officials in Pakistan were "beginning to recognize the severity" of the problem. U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is meeting with Pakistani leaders this week, and special envoy Richard Holbrooke called Zardari on Thursday evening.

The Taliban sent mixed signals as their fighters advanced from Swat into the neighboring Buner and Shangla districts. They ambushed a convoy of frontier police sent to protect government buildings in Buner, but they also extended a deadline for all nonreligious judges to leave Swat and said they had entered the other areas "only to preach."

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