ISLAMABAD – Clashes in a northwestern region covered by an increasingly fragile peace pact killed seven militants and one soldier Monday, authorities said, adding to strains on an agreement seen in the West as a capitulation to extremists.
Washington has said it wants Pakistan to fight the militants, not talk to them, and is unlikely to mourn the three-month-old deal in the Malakand region 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.
The deal will feature in talks between Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and President Obama later this week in Washington where Zardari is also expected to ask for more money to help his country's battered economy and under-equipped security forces.
Under the deal, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the districts that make up Malakand in hopes that the militants would lay down their arms. But the Taliban in Swat, the movement's stronghold, did not lay down their weapons and were emboldened, soon entering the adjacent Buner district to impose their harsh brand of Islam.
The proximity of Buner 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. On Monday, security forces killed seven insurgents in an attack on a hide-out there, the military said in a statement, bringing to almost 90 the number of insurgents slain since the operations began. Thousands of civilians have fled the region.
The military have so far not extended their campaign into Swat, saying the deal still held there.
But in violence in the former tourist region Monday, militants killed one solider and injured two others in an attack on a convoy, the statement said.
"We set up Islamic courts, we gave them Islamic judges, yet they do not accept this. They have some other agenda," said Northwest Frontier Province Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain, who helped negotiate the pact and had been one of its strongest defenders. "We will fight them and, God willing, these handful of miscreants will be defeated and the nation will prevail."
Hussain does not have the authority to order a military operation in Swat. By singling out a "handful" of militants as opposed to all of them, he appeared to be suggesting that only those he considered to be spoiling the deal should be attacked.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the army would not launch an offensive in Swat unless the government formally abandoned the truce.
Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan claimed responsibility for the convoy attack, saying the attack 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.
On Sunday, the army accused the insurgents of "gross violations" of the deal in Swat by looting and attacking infrastructure. At least three other security officials have been reported killed in recent days, and the Taliban have resumed armed patrols in the main city of Mingora.
Swat is just one part of the Afghan border region where Pakistan is facing Islamist insurgents. However, it is of special concern because it is meant to fall fully under government control, unlike tribally ruled areas along the frontier which have more autonomy.
The provincial government, whose ministers were coming under frequent insurgent attack, signed the deal with militants after security forces were unable to defeat them after two years of clashes that killed hundreds and displaced up to one-third of its 1.5 million residents.