The uneasy truce between the Pakistani government and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley appeared increasingly fragile on Monday as government forces attacked militants in a neighboring district for a second day, causing the main negotiator to break off talks.
Maulana Sufi Muhammad, the radical cleric who has been mediating peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Swat, halted negotiations on Monday to protest the military operation in the Lower Dir district west of Swat, his spokesman said.
“We are suspending talks with the government until the military operation in Dir is halted,” the spokesman, Amir Izzat, said. He said that the Taliban still adhered to the February peace agreement governing Swat, but that talks would only resume when the military operation stopped. The government said it acted against militants in Lower Dir after a local police officer and an administrator were killed.
The operation indicates that the government is trying to challenge the militants, though similar efforts in the past have been sporadic or short-lived, and the Taliban have expanded their reach from Swat into Buner, a district about 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital.
Local residents poured out of Dir on Monday, as government paramilitary forces backed by artillery and helicopter gunships pursued militants for a second day. A military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said some pockets of militant resistance remained in Lower Dir, but that most of the area was cleared. At least 37 militants and one paramilitary soldier have been killed in the two days of fighting, the military said.
Taliban militants in their stronghold of Swat reacted with a warning that they would resume fighting unless the operation was stopped. A spokesman for the militants, Muslim Khan, described the agreement as “worthless,” in comments to The Associated Press. Also on Monday, a group of armed militants seized control of the telephone exchange in Bahrain, a town north of the Swat Valley, local officials said.
Under the February peace agreement, the government agreed to the imposition of Shariah courts and both sides agreed to stop fighting. The military has ceased operations in the Swat Valley, but Taliban militants have insisted they will remain armed until the Islamic courts are set up and functioning.
Government officials said they would continue to try hold the Swat peace agreement together, but have demanded that militants cease their activities in several districts adjoining Swat and lay down their weapons. Several provincial officials have expressed growing frustration with Muhammad and his failure to make the militants follow the agreement.
Despite the inroads the Taliban have made, Afrasiab Khattak, a senior official from the Awami National Party who has led negotiations from the government’s side, said the authorities would not tolerate Taliban attempts to expand into districts beyond Swat.
“We assure the people of Pakistan that that it is not going to happen,” he told journalists. “We are not going to allow the emergence of parallel states and of private armies.”