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Taliban seizes Swat Valley hub

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | The peace deal between the Pakistani government and the Taliban all but collapsed Tuesday as militants took control of the Swat Valley's main town after a series of battles with Pakistani forces.

The Taliban is in total control of Mingora and freely patrols across the city without any hindrance, local journalist Niaz Ahmad told The Washington Times by telephone.

"Militants have occupied offices of the deputy inspector general of police, the commissioner, district [mayor] and several other government buildings," Mr. Ahmad said.

Mr. Ahmad said he had confirmed more than a dozen deaths in different parts of Swat on Tuesday and that tens of thousands of refugees were fleeing the region.

The fate of the Swat Valley is likely to figure prominently when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari meets with President Obama at the White House on Wednesday.

Mr. Obama will have a separate meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the three leaders will meet together.

The president will stress that "these two countries have to work together for their mutual benefit, despite their history, despite their suspicions," a senior administration official told the White House press corps on the condition that he not be named.

The Pakistani military issued a statement saying militants had attacked security forces in several areas of Swat.

"Armed militants are marching on the roads of Mingora city and other areas, threatening the lives of the innocent people of Swat, the civil administration, as well as security forces," the military said.

Mr. Zardari recently ratified a peace agreement in which the government would impose Islamic Shariah law in Swat and the surrounding region and the Taliban would lay down its arms.

The deal was negotiated by the North West Frontier Province's government in February to stop more than two years of fighting in the scenic valley, which was once a premier resort area.

"The government is still determined that it will not use force if militants lay down arms and accept the writ of the government," the province's information minister Iftikhar Hussain told journalists in Peshawar.

But Mr. Hussain also sought assistance from Islamabad to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees from Swat and surrounding areas who are moving to other parts of the North West Frontier Province.

"Up to half a million people are likely to migrate from the Swat Valley. The situation is getting complicated with the passage of time," he said.

In Washington, Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said that Pakistan is not a failed state. He also said that Washington backs Mr. Zardari, the president, even as it improves relations with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Mr. Holbrooke was responding to questions about unusually strong public comments by both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the past two weeks.

Mr. Obama called the Islamabad government fragile and questioned its ability to provide basic services, while Mrs. Clinton accused it of "abdicating" to militants.

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said negotiating with the Taliban is a "waste of time."

"[Taliban leaders] do not accept constitution of Pakistan, democracy of Pakistan. How can one talk with them?" said Gen. Masood.

• Nicholas Kralev and Jon Ward contributed to this report in Washington.