A peace deal in Pakistan appeared close to unravelling Monday as clashes flared in a key town in the troubled northwest and troops came under attack from militants.
Tensions are soaring between the government, which is under US pressure to extend an offensive to crush the militants, and Taliban hardliners, who rejected a new Islamic appeals court created in a bid to pacify their brutal uprising.
|Pakistani troops ride on the top of a truck as they travel toward Buner from Swabi on May 2, 2009.|
As officials threatened to unleash a fresh offensive in the one-time ski resort of Swat, in Mingora, the main town in Swat, militants attacked two police stations, a power grid and a centre that houses an army barracks and administrative offices, an official told AFP.
"There are heavy exchanges of fire between security forces and militants in different places of Mingora," he said on condition of anonymity.
But chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas downplayed the clashes, saying: "It's not exactly an attack or something very serious."
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Authorities had earlier slapped a curfew on Mingora and warned that security forces were on the alert for the threat of possible suicide car bombers.
The army accused the Taliban of committing a "gross violation" of the peace deal by patrolling in the town.
Swat has been subject to a ceasefire since the government signed a peace deal in February hoping to end a terrifying, nearly two-year insurgency.
But a Taliban spokesman rejected the appeals court at the weekend.
"Any such decision under the shadow of a military operation is not acceptable to us," Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told AFP.
Meanwhile, witnesses said extra troops heading north from the city of Peshawar came under grenade attack at the crossing into Malakand, an area home to three million which the government put under sharia law as part of the peace deal. Malakand includes the Swat valley.
"More troops are coming from Peshawar and an operation may be launched either tonight or tomorrow," a military official told AFP.
An AFP correspondent said he saw about a dozen military vehicles laden with guns and ammunition leave Peshawar on a road protected by military police.
The army said seven militants and three soldiers died in fighting on Monday, including an officer killed when Taliban ambushed an army convoy in Swat.
"We will try to resolve issues through negotiation but if they refuse to abide by the peace agreement, the government will have no option but to launch an operation against them," said provincial cabinet minister Wajid Ali Khan.
Any new operation would likely be well received in Washington, where President Asif Ali Zardari hopes to secure a massive aid package and is due to hold his first face-to-face talks with US President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
Obama has called Zardari's government "very fragile" and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Pakistan of "basically abdicating" to the Taliban in the northwest.
But the Taliban threatened fierce retaliation if a new campaign were launched.
"If they launch an operation, this time we will not let the army flee because this army is fighting not for Islam, but for our enemies," spokesman Muslim Khan told AFP.
The February pact, ratified by Zardari last month, was heavily criticised at home and abroad, with opponents arguing it would merely embolden the Taliban.
Adding to those fears, for 10 days, the military has fought hundreds of armed Taliban who have thrust further south and east into the Malakand districts of Lower Dir and Buner.
The military Monday accused militants of using residents as a "human shield" in two villages in Buner.
Residents who fled south said militants were using civilians for protection.
A 27-year-old widow, Mahbooba, from Pir Baba, said two armed Taliban forced her to accompany them to safety, before they disappeared and handed her 500 rupees (six dollars).
"They ordered me to hide their Kalashnikovs in my burqa and said if security officials ask their identity I should say that one is my brother and the other my husband," she said.
Analysts said the shaky three-month-old deal was hanging by a thread.
"The peace agreement is almost finished now, because the military operation has been launched and the Taliban have also renewed their attacks," northwest affairs expert Rahimullah Yousafzai told AFP.
Despite increasing concern about the vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, the top US military chief Admiral Michael Mullen said the weapons were safe and ruled out that they could fall into Taliban hands.