ISLAMABAD – An escalating battle between security forces and Taliban militants left more than 50 dead in a district near the capital even as Pakistan's government pressed on Friday with a much-criticized peace plan in the region, officials said.
The army launched an operation on Tuesday to retake Buner, a district just 60 miles from Islamabad, after it fell to the Taliban last month.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Friday at least 55 militants had been killed in fighting in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total killed so far to more than 100. He said two troops also died and eight others were injured when they were destroying a cache of explosives.
Security forces barred some reporters from entering the area and phone lines were down, making it hard to verify the army's account of the fighting. A Taliban spokesman could not be reached immediately for comment.
Buner lies near the Swat Valley, where a peace process between the government and militants has come under severe strain following the Taliban move into the district — amid growing international concern over the militants' expanding reach in northwestern Pakistan.
A government minister met Friday with a hard-line cleric who claims he will be able to persuade the militants in Swat to lay down their arms in return for imposing Islamic law, which the government has agreed to do in a bid to restore peace.
The cleric, Sufi Muhammad, suspended the talks earlier this week and demanded the army pull back. But he agreed to meet provincial Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain on Friday in the northwestern town of Timergara for talks that both sides termed positive.
"If the government enforces (Islamic law) in its true letter and spirit, I guarantee that the Taliban will lay down their arms and help restore peace in this region," Muhammad told reporters afterward.
He appealed to both sides to halt the fighting while the talks were under way.
U.S. leaders have slammed the peace plan as a surrender to violent extremists bent on destabilizing Afghanistan as well as nuclear-armed Pakistan and have welcomed the military operation.
But Pakistani leaders say setting up Islamic courts — a popular demand in Swat — will rob the militants of their main rallying call and make it easier to justify a crackdown on those who refuse to renounce violence.
Muhammad and the provincial government are wrangling over the identity of senior Islamic judges to be appointed to the new courts in Malakand, a region including Swat and Buner.
Hussain said the two sides were close to breaking the deadlock and that more talks would be held soon.
In Buner, the army said troops had taken control of the Ambela Pass leading into Buner from the south and were trying to link up with government forces holding the main town of Daggar.
Security forces in the Ambela area destroyed 10 cars and motorbikes laden with explosives, apparently for suicide missions, Abbas said.
He said security forces also destroyed the house of a Taliban commander in Pir Baba and a militant hide-out in Chakdara, a town outside the district.