ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan warned the Taliban on Tuesday it would expand a military offensive to Buner, a district around 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Islamabad, if the guerrillas did not withdraw from the area.
The security situation is also deteriorating in the nearby Swat valley after militants kidnapped three policemen and later killed one of them.
Buner and Swat are in the North West Frontier Province’s Malakand division, where President Asif Ali Zardari this month reluctantly agreed to impose Islamic sharia law in a bid to persuade the Taliban in Swat to lay down their arms.
Emboldened by the government’s concessions, Taliban fighters began moving into Buner and nearby Shangla district. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said around 450 Taliban were reported to have sneaked into Buner on Monday.
“I warn them to vacate the area. We are not going to spare them,” he told reporters. “Action will be taken if anyone tries to block our efforts to re-establish writ of the government in Buner and other areas,” he said.
The Taliban’s creeping advances across Malakand have raised alarm in the United States that the militants were zeroing in on Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and stoked fears that the Washington’s nuclear-armed ally was on the verge of sliding into chaos.
Pakistani security forces launched an offensive against militants in the Lower Dir district of Malakand on Sunday to stop them spreading out of the Swat valley.
Military officials say around 70 militants have been killed in fighting since Sunday. Independent casualty estimates are unavailable.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of the North West Frontier Province, said the government planned to send reinforcements to Buner in coming days.
But Danishwar Khan, police chief of Swat, said militants had kidnapped three of his men.
“The dead body of one of them was found near Swat river. They are still holding two others,” he told Reuters.
Residents said militants had plastered posters on the walls of the bazaar of Mingora, Swat’s main town, accusing the media of not giving proper coverage to the Taliban.
“They should mend their ways. Otherwise they will be responsible for the consequences,” they warned.
Residents said militants had also taken up positions in some parts of the town, raising fears of a showdown with the security forces.
The London-based Amnesty International said on Tuesday that around 33,000 people were reported to have left their homes in Lower Dir over the past two days.
Pakistani army chief Ashafaq kayani last week dispelled suggestions the country was in danger of falling into the hands of Taliban, saying security forces had halted operations against the militants to give politicians the chance to negotiate a settlement.