- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani security forces attacked Taliban militants with helicopter gunships Sunday in an area covered by a peace agreement that the U.S. fears could lead to a Taliban takeover and to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands.

Pakistan insisted that its peace accord remained intact, even as its forces claimed to have killed up to 30 militants in Lower Dir, a district that lies between the Taliban stronghold in the Swat Valley and the Afghanistan border.

Lower Dir marked the latest region adjacent to the Swat to be invaded by black-bearded Taliban fighters toting AK-47 assault rifles in the past week, prompting U.S. concerns that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari is losing control.

Mr. Zardari rejected that criticism Sunday, saying he would tell U.S. officials during a visit to Washington next week to “see your weaknesses as well as ours.”

His spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, went further:

“The peace deal is intact; the government has not revoked the peace deal. At the same time, the government is determined to root out the militants hellbent on destroying the law-and-order situation.”

Mr. Zardari recently agreed to impose Islamic, or Shariah, law in the vast Malakand region of northwestern Pakistan. The region includes Swat and surrounding districts, home to about 3 million Pakistanis.

The deal marked a government effort to end two years of fighting over Swat, a former alpine tourist haven.

The Taliban, however, has flaunted the 2-month-old deal by moving training bases to Swat and using Swat as a base to expand to adjacent districts, including Buner, which lies within 60 miles of the capital.

The Taliban agreed to leave Buner last week. The militants reportedly remain in place, although they have stopped patrolling the streets.

Officials called Sunday’s battle in Lower Dir a success and said 25 to 30 militants, including a local Taliban commander, were killed. One member of Pakistan’s security forces was killed and four wounded, the military said.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, interior minister for the North West Frontier Province, said plans to establish Shariah courts throughout Malakand would proceed but that the government would not tolerate Taliban vigilantes.

“Nobody will be allowed to set up a parallel government in any part of the province,” he said.

Retired Brig. Gen. Mehmood Shah, a military analyst with extensive experience in the region, accused the Taliban of double-crossing the government.

“Taliban are violating the peace deal. Despite the deal requirement, they are not laying down arms. Instead, they extended their presence to Buner and Dir. It proved that Taliban are little interested in enforcement of Shariah laws,” Mr. Shah told The Washington Times.

“Now people will not object if the government launches a military operation,” he said.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the militants would never give up their weapons.

“Militants do not lay down arms. They snatch arms. We will never lay down arms unless American forces withdraw from the region,” Mr. Khan told the Pakistani TV channel Express News.

The U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David H. Petraeus warned in congressional testimony that the Taliban and connected extremists pose “the most important, most pressing threat to the very existence of their country.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Congress last week that U.S. worries over Taliban gains were driven by concerns over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, which she said are widely dispersed throughout the country.

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