ISLAMABAD, (AP)– Taliban militants attacked an army convoy Monday in a northwestern region covered by an increasingly fragile peace pact, killing one soldier and dealing another blow to an agreement seen in the West as a capitulation to extremists.
The Swat peace deal and Islamabad’s patchy attempts to fight surging militancy will feature in talks between Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and President Barack Obama later this week in Washington. Zardari is expected to ask for more money to help Pakistan’s battered economy and under-equipped security forces.
Washington has said it wants Pakistan to fight the militants, not talk to them, and is unlikely to mourn the three-month-old deal if it breaks down. Still, many in the staunchly Islamic region have welcomed the pause in hostilities even though it did not lead to the eviction of the Taliban.
Monday’s attack took place early in the morning in Bari Kot region of Swat, said police officer Ayaz Khan.
An army officer said militants used rocket and gunfire to attack the convoy, but security forces repelled the attack. One soldier was killed and one injured, he said, asking for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter.
Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan claimed responsibility for attack, saying it was in response to the alleged strengthening of military positions in the region in violation of the peace deal.
“Why do you think we should remain silent if they come heavy on us? … We will attack them too,” he told The Associated Press.
Under the peace deal, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the districts that make up the Malakand Division in hopes that the militants would lay down their arms. But the Taliban in Swat, the movement’s stronghold, were emboldened, and soon entered the adjacent Buner district to impose their harsh brand of Islam.
The proximity of the district to the capital of Islamabad raised alarms domestically and abroad. Pakistan’s military went on the offensive over the past week to drive the Taliban out, killing up to 80 militants. Several thousand have fled the area.
The military has so far complied with the agreement by not launching operations in Swat, but on Sunday it accused the insurgents of “gross violations” of the deal by looting and attacking infrastructure. At least three security officials have been reported killed in recent days.
Swat is just one part of the Afghan border region where Pakistan is facing Islamist insurgents. However, it is of special importance because of its proximity to the capital and the fact that it falls under the central government’s control, unlike tribally ruled areas.
The local government signed the deal with militants after it was unable to defeat them after two years of clashes that killed hundreds and displaced up to one-third of its 1.5 million residents.