PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Fears rose Sunday over the growing might of the Taliban in Pakistan as militants ambushed government troops moving into a northwest district and hardliners shaved men for listening to music.
The expanding encroachment of hundreds of armed Pakistanis from the repressive movement, whose brethren where toppled by the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, has sparked massive US concern for nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The country has come under Western and domestic pressure to rescind a deal to put three million people in the northwest region of Malakand under Islamic law.
The accord was billed as the solution to end a brutal Taliban insurgency that turned the prosperous ski resort of Swat into a region of fear where girls’ schools were bombed, government officials beheaded and from which tens of thousands fled.
More than 1,800 people have been killed in a wave of Al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked extremist attacks across Pakistan since July 2007.
But the Taliban have shown no sign of disarming since the deal. Hundreds of them pushed into the district of Buner — just 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the capital Islamabad and despite a publicised withdrawal residents say they remain.
On Sunday, militants ambushed paramilitary reinforcements, killing one soldier and wounding at least five others in Lower Dir, another district of Malakand, where the Taliban have been reinforcing their presence, security and military officials said.
In the same district, police said 12 children were killed playing with a bomb on Saturday.
“Forces are being deployed in Dir because Taliban are gathering in the area,” said one security official.
Pakistani security forces have been heavily criticised for allowing the Taliban to act with impunity, either incapable or unwilling to intervene.
In Buner, another of Malakand’s districts, a terrified young man told AFP that Taliban militants shaved the heads and moustaches of him and three friends for listening to music late Saturday — after the alleged withdrawal.
“I was with three other friends in my car, listening to music when armed Taliban stopped us and, after smashing cassettes and the cassette player, they shaved half our heads and moustaches,” he said, not wanting to be identified.
The victim said it was “useless” to lodge a complaint with police. “It might have annoyed the Taliban further and I fear for my life,” he said.
Around 3,000 people attended a peace meeting in Buner, calling for the immediate implementation of sharia law, a local leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami party, Hanif Mohammad, told AFP by telephone.
“There should be no military operation in the area, the people of Buner would resolve all the issues through dialogue,” Mohammad said.
Residents in Mingora, the main town in Swat, said Taliban posters had been put up in streets and markets ordering women not to go shopping.
“The peace agreement does not mean that obscenity should be re-born,” read the poster from the Swat branch of Tehreek-e-Taliban.
Taliban hardliners consider it “obscene” for women to leave their homes, and ban females from venturing out in public without an immediate male relative — namely a father, brother, son or husband.
For years, Swat was a popular ski resort frequented by Westerners but the Pakistani government effectively lost control of the mountainous district after the violent Taliban campaign to enforce sharia law.
Taliban gains in Malakand are all the more worrying for Western governments because the region — unlike the wild, semi-autonomous tribal badlands on the border with Afghanistan — comes under direct Pakistani government control.
Elsewhere, in what appeared to be an accident, six members of the same family were killed and four others injured when a hand grenade exploded in a pick-up truck in the semi-autonomous tribal area of North Waziristan near the Afghan border.
“I saw the bodies of a husband, wife and their four children, and also four injured at the hospital,” local administration official Niaz Gul told AFP.
It was not clear how the grenade exploded, but one of the injured tribesmen said some of the passengers were carrying guns and hand grenades.
Washington has warned that Taliban advances pose “an existential threat” to the impoverished Muslim power on the frontline of the US-led “war on terror”.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has voiced “concerns” for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if the Taliban topples the government.
“We cannot, you know, let this go on any further. Which is why we’re pushing so hard for the Pakistanis to come together around a strategy to take their country back,” Clinton told Fox News, according to a transcript released by the network.